Posts Tagged ‘HKBU’

[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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[For Part I of this post, click here; for Part III, click here.]

HONG KONG – I’m not a professional photojournalist. Yet as a freelancer in the field, I recognize the value to being able to offer clients what I humbly refer to as “decent, usable” photos to package with my articles.

This semester, among the hours I spent with 14 separate groups of mostly Chinese students – cramming in myriad advice on how to professionalize their journalism blogs – I included a quickie tutorial on how to snap a no-frills portrait of their subjects. With their IPhone.

After all, if you’re off in an interesting place, interviewing interesting people, odds are your client will not muster the resources to send a photographer to retrace your steps. A headshot, at least, will a) make the story more visually appealing and b) help readers connect with your subject. Oh, and it may put a few more dollars in your pocket.

Two essential tips, then, I was taught long ago. First, turn your subject 45 degrees – get some angularity in their pose, rather than a straight-shouldered mug-shot. And second, like a hunter, don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes – the proverbial “window onto their soul.”

Naturally, I experimented with a guinea pig in each tutorial, to show the others. The result, it turns out, is a cherished memento for me — and a photo essay of the next generation of Chinese journalists:

Thirteen more below …


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[Part III of a three-part post; view Part I here, Part II there.]

HONG KONG – An Australian friend and colleague began teaching journalism this semester at Hong Kong Baptist University, and we recently commiserated over deep-fried pigeon how aggravating it is when students dare ignore our wisdom.

Since my colleague is new to university teaching in general, I preached to him the virtues of an occasional tongue-lashing of wayward students. Bouquets of praise and encouragement only go so far. Whether face-to-face or via email, I find nothing wrong with letting loose the occasional abuse – a tough love, borne of concern.

In the sanctuary of university brick and mortar, they can get away with missteps or outright mistakes. Next year, in the real world, they may pay a price. Why not scare them straight?

Since I always advocate the benefits of “show, don’t tell” through concrete example, here’s an email I sent to students during their recent reporting project — written for the class of my HKBU colleague, Robin Ewing, but which I then critiqued — on how to sensitively and professionally approach the reporting of minority communities.

Not surprisingly, it drew stony silence — though, the final articles produced were impressive overall:


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[The following commentary appeared March 22 on the Christian Science Monitor‘s Opinion page. It was republished March 24 on The Mantle.]

Slave Labor? I Didn’t Get Paid For This Piece — And I’m OK With That

More and more writers are publishing their work without payment in exchange for the promise of ‘prestige’ and ‘platform.’

BRATISLAVA – AOL’s tidy $315 million purchase of The Huffington Post in February produced more pity for the folks who drive much of the site’s success – the HuffPo hordes of bloggers who won’t be offered a slice of the spoils.

They are expected to continue writing for free.

Some call it slave labor. I call it fair barter. Seriously, I would write for HuffPo for free. Heck, I even agreed to write this commentary piece without compensation. [Editor’s note: Thanks again, Michael. You’re very generous.]

I’m a freelance foreign correspondent. I have a wife and three kids to help feed, and I believe that productive labor should be rewarded. So why on earth would I voluntarily submit to sweatshop conditions?

The reason is … Subscription Required for Premier Content

Just joshing. Did I have you going? The real reason I blog for free is, well, because my wife lets me. Another joke! Only partly true. Journalistic Borscht Belt, here I come. But seriously, folks. The key to why I numb myself to compensationlessness can be summed up in on word: investment.

We freelance journalists out on our own today have to “build our brand.” I can’t believe I pulled a mantra from the PR flak’s handbook, but that’s the reality today. How else to distinguish yourself amid the din of countless competing voices and social media? To survive, you have to absorb short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Even if that means writing for free.


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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. 7 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Sometimes, even a Slovak pissoir inspires me.

The old, no-frills Tesco building downtown was recently renovated into a shimmering shopping mall, with bright lights, sleek displays and basement supermarket with a hu-u-u-uge liquor section. (Not that I’m implying anything about my Slovak neighbors.) The twin cafés also got a lively makeover, the upstairs one modernized with cherry-red and mandarin-orange upholstery. As I’ve written, I like both for their fish-bowl perspective of daytime Bratislava.

One thing hasn’t changed, though: the old woman who is caretaker of the men’s WC. (If you’re in desperate need, it’s in back, on the second floor.)

Knowing that I’ll see her in a few minutes, I grow irritated. Not about her, personally. It’s more the idea of her. Why does management need a woman to just sit there, collecting coins on a tray? Doesn’t this place generate enough income? What’s the Slovak verb for “to nickel and dime someone”? Or, is this a relic of Communist-era over-employment? (Which also would have seen someone seated at the base of the escalator, just keeping an eye on things.)

I catch myself. First, on humanitarian grounds: at least it keeps some poor schlub employed. Why begrudge someone just trying to eke out an existence during tough times? Second, it’s really more of a public toilet. Plenty of people come to the shopping center only to browse, wet their whistle, or, depending on the season, to warm up or to cool down. Why not extract a measly 20 euro cents from their visit? (For fellow Americans, that’s little more than a quarter.)

These are the things I think about when walking around Bratislava, instead of wearing earphones to pipe in musical distraction. Important things, like Slovak toilets. Is it really more cost-efficient for management to assign janitors exclusive to the men’s and women’s bathrooms, rather than have store custodial staff handle it? (But please, take your breaks elsewhere, out of sight.)

Or why, during the building-wide refurbishment, did they not install the automated, pay-as-you-pee system that I now see around Central Europe in some roadside, gas-station restaurants?

Then, I see her, virtually blocking the narrow corridor to the bathroom stalls, with her considerable frame resting against a wide table. The piss-and-run swindlers among us stand no chance against her. (more…)

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

The American Slang Club in Zhuhai: Where do I sign up? (Photo: mjj)

ZHUHAI, China – The poster induces a double-take: “American Slang Club.”

Outside the door of a Chinese university classroom, across a hand-sketched map of America, is the decline of the English language. As plain as the pink, orange and blue marker in which it’s drawn.

How’s it hanging? … Lookin’ foxy! … Can you get me the hook-up? … Boozing. … Like OMG! … What a creep.

Is this what hundreds of millions of Chinese youth are learning? I can just imagine a young Chinese diplomat in New York, new to the United Nations, dropping those humdingers at the bar. I picture the next gathering of the school Slang Club, to watch an installment of The Wire.

“Now let’s pause it right there,” the Chinese slangster-in-chief might say. “Everyone repeat after me: ‘Most def!’ … Most def! … ‘You feelin’ me?’ … You feelin’ me?

Then I spot it on the poster: Shmoozing. Defined by Merriam-Webster as chatting in a “friendly and persuasive manner especially so as to gain favor, business, or connections.” More striking: Yiddish, uttered here on the Chinese Riviera. I kvell.


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HONG KONG – The five Chinese women stand on the sidewalk, smiling, chatting, primping their hair. Two are young and fresh-faced, reminding me of my students. The other three are pretty, but older, with a certain been-around-the-block look. All five flash more cleavage than your ordinary Hong Konger.

Suddenly, they scatter like startled geese, tottering in heels, click-clacking in the same direction. The spotter has signaled: cops coming. Seconds later, a patrolman in oxford blue strolls past, the bill of his black cap pulled down over the bridge of his nose.

He passes. The women quickly return, re-occupying their turf.

Working with our journalism students, it’s easy to lapse into thinking many of the mainlanders who migrate to Hong Kong are middle-class university graduates trying to broaden their horizons. And, to forget that hundreds of millions are desperate to escape the poverty of rural China.

As Ms. Magazine wrote three years ago, the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule loosened border controls, attracting countless mainland women willing to prostitute themselves for quick cash. In 2006 alone, some 10,000 mainland women in Hong Kong were jailed for solicitation or violating visas.

According to the local advocacy group Zi Teng, most of their clients are older women – single mothers or married women – who find it more difficult to find work in China’s booming coastal cities. So, many try their luck in Hong Kong.


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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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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 – 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 historic Central wet market after light rain this morning. (Photo: mjj)

Tomorrow, my workshop begins. The department has kindly been flexible to create a shorter but more intensive role for me, with a nifty title: “Super Tutor.”

What’s that? Beats me: you won’t find “Super Tutor” among faculty job descriptions. Even Google yields a paltry 7,370 hits. And I didn’t see any with journalism in mind.

So, my visionary boss at HKBU, Huang Yu, is allowing me to carve my own path. What a challenge it will be: 77 graduate students. My assignment is to provide journalistic guidance to each student. Three times. Over a six-week period. Not individually, mind you. That schedule would drive a man batty.

Instead, they’re broken into 16 groups of five, with a few quartets. For the mathematically oriented, that works out to meeting eight different teams one week, for 90 minutes a pop, then the second eight the next week. Rotate weeks until Oct. 25. With a couple of lectures for the entire community mixed in. (Then, back to my family in Slovakia.)

I could do what I did last year, when I was one of many tutors. I met with two slightly larger groups – with 6-7 students each – three times apiece. Total: 6 tutorials. This time, 48 tutorials.

Last year, the tutorial criteria: discuss whatever they want to, as long as it’s journalism-related. Lots of latitude, but limited to conversation. After all, each of the students already had me every week for my foreign-reporting course, for the whole semester. Tutorials were just something “extra.”

This time, I want more. This is the only chance I have to get to know them. So, I’ll fashion myself into a “Journalism Coach.” What better way to connect with them than through their work, nudging them in the right direction with their reporting and writing?

Tomorrow, I hold my first two tutorials. My game plan is … (more…)

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The vibe of Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong. (Photo: mjj)

In the spirit of LeBron James, I’m taking my talents to Hong Kong

I thought the semester spent last year in Hong Kong, teaching journalism, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (To read those posts, scroll upward from the Sept. 2, 2009, item “Land Ho“). But here I am, for a second tour in Hong Kong: a city once British, now Chinese. This time, for a six-week workshop as journalism coach to 77 students at Hong Kong Baptist University and its Master of Arts in International Journalism Studies program. (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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BRATISLAVA — Today I headed to one of the city’s most dynamic arteries, Obchodna Ulica (or “Shop Street”). My target was a pretty good café, but more importantly, the juice to power my laptop for a while.

Navigating my way, I decided to cut through the Chinese market and its gauntlet of hanging clothes. It’s a pleasant change of pace from the dominant Slavic, Hungarian and Germanic features here. Plus, saves time!

Seeing the Chinese faces of the peddlers, it struck me: “Hey, now I can say ‘Hi’ to them in their own language.”

I don’t know why I often feel a need to chat with strangers. In whatever language I can muster a few words. I suppose a major reason is the solitude of freelancing. Also, I’ve asked around: I think I’m a foreign press corps of one. So, I need the occasional human interaction.

In the market, a young Chinese woman stood in front of her stall of blue jeans.

“Ni hao,” I said, clumsily. Hello.

It’s one of the few phrases in Mandarin I learned during my week in Yunnan Province. I tried, but I guess Cantonese really is limited to parts of southern China. My students and colleagues were right indeed.

The young woman seemed tongue-tied and said nothing. But I didn’t stop or look back. (Wasn’t feeling that vibe.) Three stalls down, a second chance: a young Chinese man, leaning against a railing.

“Ni hao,” I said, more confidently.

Even more surprising for Bratislava, he answered with a slow smile: “Hi.”

I thought immediately of my students in Hong Kong, now nearing the end of their one-year program. They were such a charming crowd, I couldn’t help but be affected by them. So here I was, taking that Chinese goodwill and paying it forward – to the Chinese diaspora!

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The Hong Kong Skyline

The Hong Kong Skyline

 The blog below documents my Fall 2009 semester of teaching journalism in Hong Kong, as a Visiting Scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University. I thought of calling this blend of light and serious observations “One Hundred Days in Hong Kong.” (Though it was actually 108.) But because I’ve spent most of the past 16 years in ex-Communist Eastern Europe (that’s old Bratislava drawn above), my life and journalistic experiences there were the inevitable measuring stick for fresh encounters in China. So I dubbed this blog: “From East to East”! [First entry: Sept. 2 – “Land, Ho…”] 

(FYI, I’ve woven in, chronologically, the journalism I produced during that time.)

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One thought struck me early on in my stint here in Hong Kong: once my mainland Chinese students are exposed to the freedom of speech, freedom of expression – and the freedom to surf the Internet! – how difficult would it be to return to the restrictions back home? Once your mind has been pried open to all the possibilities, how can you tolerate having it shut closed?

For example, one of the first things they do upon arrival here is to open a Facebook account, an act forbidden on the mainland. As are YouTube, Twitter and a slew of other social-media and news sites.

Imagine not being able to buy a history book about your own people, in your own country, but just across the border. For me, in fact, it’s unimaginable. One Chinese colleague says the lecture he enjoys most is when he shares with wide-eyed students everything they can’t learn back home.

So, with my last few weeks in Hong Kong, I’ve been asking some of my mainlanders: What next?

Over a bubbling “hot pot” soup in a local dai-pai-dong – an open-air street restaurant – several of my students were unsurprisingly torn between a desire to return to family, friends and hometown, or trying to stay in Hong Kong to find an unfettered media job.

Going home, said one young woman from the north, would be “like being a human being, then going back to being a primate.” Said another, who hails from just across the border, in Shenzhen, added, “Once I’ve learned about all the resources out there, I don’t want to have them taken away from me.”

A third, though, indicated that despite everything she’s learned here, she would surely return to her beloved coastal city – resume keeping her head down. “If I were to blog about sensitive topics, I could be put in jail,” she said. “And I wouldn’t want to risk my life for that, or get my family into trouble.”

One day I myself will return to the Middle Kingdom, to see how – if at all – our students have applied our lessons in “democratic” journalism.

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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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PPWWLogoAs journalists, we’re taught to refuse “freebies,” the gifts that may influence our work. But I’m thrilled that seven Pulitzer-winning journalists accepted a free trip to Hong Kong last week. If nothing else, they made our job a bit easier.

My journalism teaching is a mix of what I learned in school, what I’ve gleaned from my own journalism of the past 20 years, and my journalistic instincts today. Still, as a freelance teacher, I don’t often get the feedback that “Yes, you’re doing it the right way.”

Which is one reason why the Pulitzer Prize-Winners Workshop, hosted by Hong Kong Baptist University, left such an impression. It wasn’t just drawing inspiration from seven of the best that American journalism has to offer. But how their words reinforced our own.

On hand for the week were Jim Amoss, editor of The Time-Picayune in New Orleans, the 1997 and 2006 winner in the Public Serve category; Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times, a 2009 winner for Explanatory Reporting; Hank Klibanoff, a 2007 winner for History; Michael Parks, the 1987 winner for International Reporting; Jane Perlez of the New York Times, a 2009 winner for International Reporting; Connie Schultz of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the 2005 winner for Commentary; and Damon Winter of the New York Times, the 2009 winner for Feature Photography.

During a mid-week break in the discussions, I sat in the news lab with two colleagues. “It’s so good to hear them saying exactly what I’m teaching,” said Robin Ewing, an American. Before I could second that, our Japanese colleague, Masato Kajimoto, exclaimed: “I was thinking the same thing!”

My view is that students can’t hear the principles of serious, responsible journalism often enough. Especially at HKBU, where we’re training the future generation of Chinese democrats. (That’s democrat with a lower-case “d.”)

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Pulitzer week was clearly meaningful to the students, as it opened their eyes to so many layers of the work we do. What surprised me, though, was how the prize-winners themselves came away inspired from meeting our students.

In other words, it went both ways – a genuine cultural exchange.

To document it, I’ve asked both sides for their impressions. A sampling so far:

Chen Chen, 22, from Qufu, Shandong:

There are two thoughts so beautiful that may spur and inspire me for quite a long while. One is from Julie and Connie. They both said, being humble, and being grateful. Before that, I was very depressed, felt so debased that I didn’t want to pick up the phone and make another call. I wondered whether a REAL journalist would experience the same. But then I knew even Pulitzer winner went through the same. That’s just part of being a journalist. Not everyone is nice. You just have to be humble, and feel grateful to those who are nice to you. Another one is from Michael Parks. He said and I remembered clearly, “there would be no great story in a place of comfort. I can hardly remember when the best story happened in London, or Paris.” His words gave me strength. I went to the Central with my partner that afternoon and didn’t feel tired at all. It wasn’t a place of comfort to interview a lisping old man in front of a working crane, but I always thought of what Michael (and you) said.

Andrea Deng, 23, Shenzhen:

It was so inspiring and triggers so much aspiration of becoming a professional international correspondent that I have to let myself calm down a little bit, just to be sure that I’m not overwhelmed by faraway dreams and actually act on what I’ve learned. I’m most impressed by the experience of Julie Cart writing the Pulitzer-winning news, that she found the most interesting story only at the end of her last day staying in Australia. Before that, she had already done scores of interviews. It shows tremendous patience and conscientiousness. She said she never felt interview was done enough. I marked down what she said and tried to practice in my recent task, doing my best to contact strangers and interviewing people half a day before deadline. It’s my inexperience to not achieve better, but I feel that I have done everything I can to achieve the best of myself. Time will perfect my skills. I’m also impressed by Damon Winter’s photos, effortlessly. All that devastated close-up faces of ordinary people and appalling long-shots where tragedy took place in front of the camera thrill me. Journalists are front-line witnesses of human sufferings and human history. I’m not saying that everything in the world makes people sad, but picking up pieces of stories gradually forms one’s understanding of people and the world, and hopefully forms a clear mind of how to live one’s own life. I just wish that I could be more sensitive about people’s thoughts and feelings, and be more knowledgeable to assist my understanding of different people.



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In a Jordan Ink. exclusive, columnist Connie Schultz, who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, reflects on her visit to Hong Kong:

It is 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning in our home in America, and being the cook of the family I am the only one up. Being the only journalist in the family, I am also the only one already on a computer checking the news and e-mail. Some habits will die only when I do, I’m afraid.

One of my e-mails included a wonderful note from Professor Robin Ewing, who asked me if I had checked Professor Michael Jordan’s blog, “Jordan, Ink.” to read what some of the students have written here.

What? My beloved Hong Kong friends are writing about their experiences with us? I rushed to click on the link. I was eager for my HKBU student-fix, as spending time with all of you created a new addiction in me. A good one: I yearn for more of our lively conversations.

I am so moved by what has been posted here, in large part because, from my perspective, the gratitude is all mine. When I arrived in Hong Kong bedraggled and blinking like a newborn, I had no idea what was in store of us, but it didn’t take long to find out. Immediately, I was greeted by the smiling faces of students who traveled at night just to meet me. Yang Zhuo stood front and center, recognizing me immediately and welcoming me like a long lost relative.

I had the hunch that I was about to have the adventure of a lifetime, and boy, did I. Woo-hoo, as my son always says.

I am still digesting all that I learned during my time in Hong Kong. Meeting such a brave group of students and faculty – and yes, it is brave what you are doing – shook me of any resigning thoughts I might have been having that the best days of American journalism must surely be behind us. The newspaper industry in our country is deeply troubled right now. But how can I possibly give up trying to find ways for us to continue to play a vital role in our country’s democracy when you are fighting so hard for the right to practice ethical, responsible journalism in your country? I feel newly charged, and it’s because of you. (more…)

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Aspiring journalists need to understand they’re not in this business to get rich; only a fraction of our ilk will ever earn big bucks. So, you recognize early on the other payoffs. Like the thrill of the byline!

Yes, some of us are driven by altruism and idealism, to defend the little guy, or take down a bad guy, or to inform and educate an audience about serious social, political, economic or environmental issues. But there’s also nothing quite like seeing your name in print, atop your reportage.

Almost 20 years later, I still derive satisfaction from seeing my work published, appreciating the fact that so many others would love to be in the same position. This was one reason I pushed for a public showcase of HKBU student reporting. The result: Hong Kong Dispatches. (Though it was my energetic colleague, Robin Ewing, who ultimately did most of the heavy lifting with the site.)

We colleagues then had an interesting discussion about whether ALL the student work should be uploaded, or just the cream of the crop. I’m of two minds. On the one hand, you want the best work to reflect well on the university, even on your own teaching. And there’s something a bit too touchy-feely about, as you would with children, giving everyone a ribbon just for participating. “We’re all winners, Timmy!”

The greater good, though, is that I want each of my students to taste this thrill of the byline, in hopes that this ego-boost will propel them forward, into a career of serious journalism. My vote, then, was to publish ’em all.

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HONG KONG — Plagiarism warnings to students are all theoretical until that vexing assignment comes along. Oh, the temptation! Just a simple Control-C-Control-V maneuver with your fingers, pasting just the right words into your document … Presto! All your homework worries evaporate.

The contagion entered my classroom clinging to modest 300-word features, on Filipinas in Hong Kong struggling to support families in the typhoon-struck Philippines. (See post below.) While focusing on one woman, students were also required to note the big picture of what befell the country itself.

Searching the wires, the temptation proved too great. Some seemingly wondered: “How could I ever describe the destruction as eloquently?” Others succumbed to: “I wanna get this story done, quick!” I found at least a dozen cases of flat-out theft. Which is a real pity, because I was truly pleased with the students’ overall effort to find compelling stories and describe them in detail.

I’ve heard of pervasive plagiarism in Chinese universities (and elsewhere, of course), with several of my colleagues here now grumbling about the same thing. I’m new to Chinese culture, but I wonder if there isn’t a link between plagiarism and the same mentality and lawlessness that enables widespread piracy of CDs, DVDs and computer software: “If it’s ripe for the taking, take it.”

In this case, my sleuthing was made easier by non-native-English-speaking students who suddenly produced a perfectly worded, native-English-sounding sentence or paragraph. Not the cleverest of criminals!

In the West, intellectual-property theft is taken so seriously, I told students about the time a magazine client accused me of plagiarizing … from myself. I’d written a short article for one client, then expanded it for another, doubling its length with much more research and interviewing. Yet I also lifted a few graphs from my original. Not good enough, said the second client. Lesson learned.

In a hotly worded email to my students, I imposed another “zero tolerance” policy. (See Sept. 15 post below.) Either paraphrase the words or quote directly, in both cases attribute the source. There are no other options. One student was so ashamed at being busted, she emailed me that she “could not fall asleep or even stop my tears.” Lesson learned.

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In teaching, as in reporting, you have to roll with the punches. You never know what may happen next week. So, with twin typhoons in the Philippines, coupled with the huge number of Filipina maids in Hong Kong, I had to detour from my planned course curriculum.

I challenged my students to localize a major international story, profiling one Filipina and her reaction to what had happened to her family: 300 words. (When you’re editing 70 articles, you must be reasonable with length, right?)

I told all 70 students to descend on the parks and public spaces where these Filipinas gather every Sunday (see the Sept. 13 post below), split up, and respectfully ask: “Have any of you been directly affected by the storms?”

I explained that “directly affected” is a more sensitive approach to “Has anyone here lost a home or relative?” For emphasis, I recalled the black humor of the ill-mannered Western reporter in a Rwandan Tutsi refugee camp, asking loudly: “Has anyone here been raped … and speak English?”

It may be urban legend, but students got the point.

I provided a simple, diamond-shaped story structure: a “curtain-raising” intro of our Filipina subject; deep, meaningful quote; transition to the big picture of what happened to the Philippines; then transition back to our subject.

A few more tips, just to get the hang of it: open the story by describing exactly what she was doing when she learned of the destruction, how she reacted, then quote her explaining why she reacted the way she did. I also reiterated the magical – sometimes cliché – transition word: “Meanwhile, …”

And if you’re at a loss for what to ask, imagine yourself in her shoes. You live far from home, far from your children, parents and siblings, and they’re struck by natural disaster. How would you react? Now you know what to ask them.

Among all the skills a reporter should possess, empathy ranks way up there.

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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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The results of their first reporting and writing assignments are in — and it’s time for me to get tough.

Again, it’s one thing if student-journalists struggle to ask not just “Why?” but “Why exactly?” Again, I know it took me years of experience before I fully grasped the need to really put my finger on “Why exactly does this person do what they do?” Or, “Why exactly is this situation the way it is?”

The truth is, your ability to explore and answer those two questions is the essential difference between more-serious and less-serious journalism.

So, while I hold that out as the ideal, I’m cutting them some slack in that it takes time to learn. However, I’ve hit upon a more troubling trend. Most of them veered from our reporting objective: “How do Hong Kongers feel about the Oct. 1 anniversary? Why exactly do they feel the way they feel?” Instead, most students pursued: “Will you participate in the anniversary celebrations?” At least some of them asked their sources why or why not. But this isn’t just a far-less-interesting angle, it’s off-topic.

My message to the students will be simple, but firm: if your editor or producer tells you to do something, you do it. Of course, it’s always important to make your boss happy. It’s also important that your boss not worry about your competence to follow instructions.

That’s no way to stay employed, in this or any other industry.

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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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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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I’ve seen this look before. Lecturing to journalism students, I get on my high horse about the watchdog role of a journalist: to hold the authorities accountable for their words and deeds.

“If they’re spending taxpayer money,” I preach, “you have a right to explore how exactly they’re spending it, and why exactly they’re spending it the way they’re spending it.”

Yet this sermon is not always greeted with “Amen!” I’ve spoken with young journalists from harsh dictatorships – say, Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan – where I spot an eye roll, or feel a rise in temperature. Because for them, this “democratic”-style journalism is an appealing but unattainable ideal. Asking such tough questions back home may land them in prison, or worse.

I’m now getting some of the same looks here, from mainland-Chinese students. Those who’ve had internships have already tasted censorship – editors explain which lines can’t be crossed, like criticizing the authorities, or third-rail subjects like Tibet or Xinjiang, with its restive Uighur minority.

I’m fortunate to also have a handful of Burmese, Cambodian and Vietnamese students in class, and one of the Burmese articulately noted the time isn’t right for such journalism under his country’s military regime – but he’ll wait patiently.

What these aspiring journalists believe can and can’t be done is a topic I look forward to exploring throughout the semester.

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I’ve now heard plenty of students utter the phrase “I want to broaden my horizons,” like a mantra. I’ll be sure to ask them to clarify further. But for now, it has me wondering about China’s unfathomable size – and how difficult it would be for one individual to distinguish themselves.

My homeland, America, is no 98-pound weakling: 300 million is nothing to sneeze at. Not only is China quadruple the size, but it boasts at least 170 cities with a population of 1 million or more.

To boot, I can’t help but note that most Chinese have a rather singular look: medium height and build, straight black hair. Anxious I was stereotyping, I asked my Chinese-American teaching partner, Peter Eng; to my relief, he conceded that he, too, is so far having difficulty telling our students apart.

Now, I’ve long entertained the question: Would I rather be a small fish in a large pond, or a larger fish in a smaller pond? Yes, I prefer the latter. Most of us would, I think.

So for our students, most of whom hail from these sprawling metropolises, studying international journalism in Hong Kong represents more than a master’s degree: HK is a uniquely cosmopolitan Chinese city; this field may offer exciting, exotic travel opportunities, far from the rat-race back home; and lastly, they’re honing their English skills, at a time when English is a highly valued skill.

That’s certainly one way to distinguish yourself.

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A couple months before I came here, I asked a British colleague who’d been a Beijing correspondent why he thought so many mainland Chinese would come to affluent Hong Kong to study Western-style journalism, when the Chinese media itself is so tightly restricted. His reply: “The shopping.”

That, I now see, is not true. (Or at least only partly true.) Over the past 24 hours, I’ve gone around the room in each of my four sections, asking students about their motivation for studying journalism. The answers ranged from “My parents chose this for me” and “I don’t want to be tied to a desk,” to “I like interviewing different people” and “I want to broaden my horizons.”

Yet one response I heard again and again was particularly moving: “I want to know the truth. I don’t want to be lied to, or told what to think.”

Back home, one of their most illustrious institutions, Tsinghua University – some hail it as the “MIT of China” – now purveys what it calls “Marxist Journalism.” This, the Washington Post wrote in 2007, is “broadly interpreted to mean journalism that the government views as improving society and taking account of Chinese realities, including censorship under one-party rule.”

So, it dawns on me that Hong Kong, with its legacy of British law and tradition, may represent a haven for more critically thinking Chinese. Already, students are reading and watching local news reports – and finding taboo books in the library – they’d never get on the mainland.

As if to reinforce the point, last night I watched a TV report of how some 40 Hong Kong journalists demonstrated here Monday before Chinese government offices, protesting police detentions and beatings of Hong Kong journalists covering inter-ethnic tensions in Ürümqi, in northwest China.

Such an outcry by mainland journalists, on the mainland, is unimaginable. Truth is, I don’t know how many Chinese share my students’ views. But it sure inspires me to help make a difference.

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For 40 years, I’ve been conditioned to look left, then right, and cross when all’s clear. I’ve also developed a habit of, when sensing no traffic from the left, instinctively stepping into the street, ready to stride across.

In Hong Kong, this habit may get me killed. In this ex-British colony, they drive as the Brits do: wheel on the right side, driving in the left-hand lane. It’s as jarring as a visit to Bulgaria, where Bulgarians quirkily nod when they mean no, and wobble their head from left to right when they mean yes.

Silly as it sounds, I’ve been here a week and still mix it up, looking the wrong way. I’ve already had several buses whizz past my nose.

Apparently, I’m not the only one finding this habit hard to break; the mainland Chinese, likewise accustomed to right-lane driving back home, also get confused in Hong Kong.

Otherwise, how else to explain what looks like a “Street-Crossing for Dummies” guide: at most intersections here, painted into the crosswalk, in both English and Chinese characters, are the words “Look Right.” If that’s not enough guidance for some pedestrians, they’ve helpfully added another clue: an arrow.

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This semester, I’m assigned to co-teach the same reporting class to four separate sections, numbering nearly 80 students in all. My colleague, Peter Eng – a longtime AP man in Southeast Asia – teaches the first 90 minutes, I do the next 90.

The challenge is not just to lead so many through the big reporting project I’ve planned for them; it’s the idea of teaching precisely the same material to four different groups: three on Monday, one on Tuesday. Delivering the same principles, the same anecdotes, the same witty (?) one-liners.

The first week was easy enough, as I mainly introduced the syllabus and myself. But today was tougher, trying to ensure each hears the same shpiel and moves forward at the same pace.

Unfortunately for Section I, they may serve as guinea pig, as I gauge what worked, what didn’t, then fine-tune for the remaining three. And I’ll be sure to fuel up on espresso before Sections III and IV, to avoid running on fumes.

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Chinese waistlines are doomed.

I’ve seen it happen in Central Europe: slick new Western-style marketing coupled with a bottomless array of junk food and fast food contribute to an epidemic that now sees the Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and Slovaks climbing the ranks of Europe’s most-obese nations, according to the World Health Organization.

Here, the vast majority of Chinese are svelte. But in terms of goodies, it almost feels like I’m back in the States. In one metro station, the intoxicating scent of Mrs. Field’s cookies lures commuters up the escalator. The supermarkets have aisle upon aisle of snacks, from America, Japan and all points in between. Vending machines and 7-11 stores are everywhere, with customers guzzling their sugary drinks and fattening treats.

And as I’m sitting here in the mega-mall Festival Walk, I spy the food court, where McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken enjoy capacity seating, with many customers afterward heading over to Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s for a couple of scoops. (Hooray, cookie-dough ice-cream!)

Long-term, I don’t know how Chinese metabolism can withstand the assault.

I’d get more sanctimonious about this if I weren’t about to head in to the multiplex, armed with my bucket of popcorn …

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Check, Please

I miss the simple pleasures of Bratislava, the low-key capital of Slovakia, where I’ve lived with my family the past three years.

Not only the wider, less-populated sidewalks – at half-a-million souls, Bratislava is one of Europe’s tiniest capitals – which enable me to stretch my long legs and slalom around pedestrians. Compare that with Hong Kong, which is 14 times larger (and more populous than all of Slovakia combined). The narrow sidewalks are jam-packed, crawling like the cars: you’re condemned to stop-and-go traffic.

Instead, what I really miss is the café culture of Central Europe, romanticized by the literary salons of centuries past. As a freelancer whose laptop is a permanent appendage to my back, this is the lifestyle for me. Whether in Slovakia, Czech Republic or Hungary, I can always find a kaviareň or kávéház around the next corner, order a double espresso in the local tongue, then work for an hour or two or three.

While it’s still rare in Central Europe to see someone open a laptop, plug in and mooch free wireless, I do my part in Bratislava, visiting two or three cafés a day, greasing the wheels with tips well beyond the leave-the-coins norm.

Hong Kong, though, is dominated by eateries. The steady flow of customers deters a loiterer like me. Yesterday, in my favorite HK neighborhood so far, Yau Ma Tei, I was pleased to find a cozy, Parisian-themed spot with a long list of coffees, plus light meals. I settled in to read a few pages, but the customers kept a-comin’, even in mid-afternoon. I couldn’t stand the pressure, so got up and left.

Hoping for authentic, mom-and-pop places to sit and work, it seems I’m left with three options: yes, Starbucks (the McDonald’s of cafés); its HK imitation, “Pacific Coffee Company”; or the American-style mega-mall, “Festival Walk.”

Wait a minute … don’t they have teahouses around here?

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I taste a dynamism in Hong Kong I don’t get in Central Europe – which, while now in my blood, can at times be aloof and insecure. And I don’t mean HK’s big-city pulse of crowded sidewalks and streets, framed by neon. Until I understand it more deeply, I’ll guess that it’s a different level of self-confidence.

Today I dropped into a small antique shop in the historic Chinese neighborhood of Kowloon City. Inside I found a woman who was the only other Westerner I saw in the enclave. She was negotiating a business deal, with the occasional help of a young translator she’d brought.

Within seconds, the translator approached, asking what brought me so far from the traditional Western haunts around Hong Kong. When I mentioned the teaching-journalism bit in nearby Kowloon Tong, she grew excited, saying she’d tried to get a job with CNN-Hong Kong. She went further: could I get her into our one-year master’s program?

Bam, she asked for my card. Stunned by her assertiveness, I nevertheless pulled out a card.

Later in the day, while strolling around the Yau Ma Tei neighborhood, I spotted a tiny apartment-rental office, and popped in. Two women, one working behind the desk, the other her friend. The agent spoke no English, but her friend, Lihiuyim, spoke some. With a huge smile, she mustered her best effort: I’m 37, from the mainland, work for a bus company, living here with my young daughter.

Then, an epiphany: “You teach me English! I teach you Mandarin and Cantonese! You give me card!”

Forget for a moment that I’ll be happy to learn 100 words of Cantonese while here. What I marveled at was the day’s second example of someone who knows what they want – and go for it.

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Speaking of that dinner (see below), it was quite a feast: platter after platter of meats, noodles, vegetables and fish brought to each table of 12.

But before the first bite, I can’t help but think of the book I’m making my way through, “Tai-Pan,” about the British colonizing of Hong Kong in 1841. Throughout, the British refer to the Chinese as “heathens,” while the Chinese brand the Brits as “barbarians.” There are vivid descriptions of the Brits eating with only their hands, tearing apart chickens, the grease dripping into lice-ridden beards.

I’m new to China. And I’ve yet to broach this with my students. But I wonder if a sense of “barbaric” Western customs still resonates. (In my first trip to a restaurant here, they served me a fork and knife. I had to request chopsticks, like the other diners.)

So I wait and watch how the students serve themselves. Yet no one has. I ask why, and am told that tradition bestows first dibs to “elders” – that would be me and another veteran journalist seated at the table, Zoher Abdoolcarim, the Asia editor of TIME International.

The eyes are on me. Rex helpfully advises me not to use my own chopsticks, but the communal ones resting beside the dishes. Fortunately, I wield a mean pair of chopsticks. Modestly helping myself to a bit of beef and snowpeas, I succeed in not dropping a single piece.

Then the others dig in. When a platter of two large broiled fish is later placed in front of Zoher, I realize I had it easy. He grew up in Hong Kong, as his ancestors first came from India 130 years ago to trade in textiles. But now he’s protesting having to be the one to tackle the fish.

The students insist, so he deftly plucks a symbolic piece. Overall, the meal goes off without an embarrassing hitch. At least, not that I’m aware of.

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One of my great challenges here will be to remember the names of all 100 students. It was tough enough in Slovakia, where my spring class hit 30. If I’d forget one, my fallback option were the most popular names: “Hmmm. Martina? Lenka? Katarina?”

In Hong Kong, the task is even more difficult.

Chinese names are difficult to pronounce, even when transliterated from the original Chinese characters. I learned this the hard – and humiliating – way in January, in Prague, while handing out certificates to the Hong Kong Baptist University students who attended the TOL foreign-correspondence training course, which I helped lead.

Transliteration doesn’t quite capture the Chinese tones. So as I read out each name, the crowd roared at my mangled pronunciation. This I endured for a mere 35 names.

To simplify things, the Chinese who interact with foreigners typically choose a more international name, for those special occasions. So a “Jiangjie” becomes “Lulu.”

This allows from some creativity: women reinventing themselves as Coral, Icy or Evening. Occasionally, it leads to chicanery. One HKBU colleague tells me a female student last year asked to be called “Ice Cream.” Then she noticed another colleague refer to that same student as “Chocolate.” The ruse was exposed!

Since most students are from the mainland, with this their first time meeting Western faculty, several are trying out new names, to see how they fit.

At a teacher-student dinner earlier this week, on my right a young man introduced himself as “Rex.” He’d originally chosen the name “Lex,” until an American woman told him “Rex” was cooler. I agreed, and told him to Google the Latin definition.

On my left was “Emily” – a popular choice. In America, too, as it ranks No. 1. (It’s also the name of my darling niece.)

Two days later, Emily came to our first class. Her name placard puzzled me: “Psyche.” I thought you were Emily, I asked. With another Emily in class, she wanted something unique. Next class, though, I may have to tell Psyche how uncomfortably close her new name is to a certain Alfred Hitchcock film …

(Sept. 7 note: I see the student has now reverted to the original, but Frenchified it — Amelie.  Excellent choice.)

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It’s a bit unnerving to see so many locals wearing surgical masks over their mouth and nose: the staff at the airport, at the hotel, at the bookstore, etc. On the streets, I estimate 1 in 20 wear them.

Sure, HK saw a few cases of swine-flu earlier this year. But do they know something I don’t know? Nahhh. It’s just a healthy dose of paranoia.

In 1997, Avian flu struck Hong Kong, killing six. Then in 2003, along came Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which traumatized Hong Kongers when it claimed some 300 lives.

So their anxiety is understandable, writes expat guru Rory Boland: “At the slightest sniffle of a cold they will, quite sensibly, don their mask, thus stopping any disease from spreading.”

In this heat, though, I can’t imagine exacerbating my misery by breathing into a paper mask. However, I just may adopt another popular accoutrement here: umbrellas to shield you from the sun.

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Land, Ho …

It’s sticky hot, and dripping sweat often burns my eyes. But I don’t mind. I arrived in Hong Kong this week, and the adrenaline I feel – day in, day out – reminds me of the rush I experienced when I moved to Budapest, way back in 1993: I’m damn lucky to have this kind of adventure.

This time around, more remarkable is that my wife and kids allowed me to do it.

Hong Kong is my foothold into Asia, just as it was in 1841 for Dirk Struan, the seafaring merchant in James Clavell’s “Tai-Pan” – a 700-page epic I began reading on the flight over. In fact, it’s the farthest east I’ve ever been, eclipsing my journo-adventures Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Where those Central Asian countries are more “Russified,” after seven decades of Soviet control, Hong Kong is China. Or perhaps it’s better described as China* – the asterisk to denote the lasting cultural, capitalistic legacy of 150 years of British rule, which only ended in 1997.

At least I’m not alone here. No, I don’t mean the 7 million Hong Kongers crammed onto these rocks and islands. Turns out, of the 100 first-year graduate students I’m teaching at Hong Kong Baptist University, almost all of them hail from mainland China – and also have never been to HK before. In fact, they, like me, don’t speak the language: the Cantonese unique to this region, versus the Mandarin spoken by 1 billion-plus other Chinese. So, as I tell the students with a smile, “We’re in the same boat.”

Other than that, they have a clear advantage. They know the proper way to each jellyfish or chicken feet. They know their personal chopsticks from the table’s communal chopsticks. They also know why it’s acceptable to belch at the table. Me? I’m learning … quickly!

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QuillLogoBy Michael J. Jordan, August 2009 Issue

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – Every foreign correspondent has a tale of their big break: the story that, in the eyes of editors back home, suddenly transformed them from a dreamer who only talked about the overseas reporting they wanted to do, into someone who’s proven they can deliver the goods.

My break came in Spring 1995, amid the wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia. My story: the babies abandoned by the Bosnian Muslim women whom Serb paramilitaries had raped. Rape as a war crime.

My journalistic journey had actually begun years earlier. I was the son of Cold War refugees from Hungary and Egypt, and my professor father often took us along to international conferences. I, too, wanted foreign adventure.

There are essentially two ways into foreign correspondence: Climb the ladder at a major newspaper, win awards and seniority, await the vacancy of a plum post overseas. Or strike out on your own, push through the back door.

I chose the latter. (more…)

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