Philip J Cunningham

The news kiosk nearest my Beijing residence is nestled under the staircase of a massive pedestrian bridge that spans a centuries-old thoroughfare now thoroughly jammed with buses and cars bearing down on the dust of what was once the heart of the old city in Marco Polo’s time. The sturdy span not only connects one side of the street to the other, but links two different administrative districts.

The bridge is the only reasonably safe and convenient way to cross the busy fenced road, an elevated bottleneck and chokepoint as it were, engorged with foot traffic morning to night. The bridge, fed by four massive staircases rimmed with inclined ramps for pushing bicycles, is sturdy and wide enough on top to accommodate hundreds of pedestrians at once, inadvertently providing the kind of foot flow coveted by street merchants. As opportunistic merchants stake out space along the railing, the path narrows, the crowd thickens and the bridge is transformed into a floating market, allowing wily salespeople to hawk their wares above the pedestrian-unfriendly roadway below.

The market is a black market, operating without permits or permission, but it brings goods to customers, including impulse items and cute knick-knacks you didn’t know you wanted until you suddenly wanted them. Every now and then there is a crackdown and the merchants are brusquely dispersed by police, but the moveable market persists and for the most part it thrives, if only because enough profit is turned to make the risks tolerable.

Because trade is conducted on the sly, it’s buyer beware; quality control and accountability are largely absent. Counterfeit products abound, some relatively risk-free; say the latest installment of Harry Potter, others outright risky, such as unsanitary foodstuffs. Faulty merchandise is near impossible to refund.

Wedged in between the faux marble railings of the footbridge one beholds a movable tableau of unsanctioned commerce, offering everything from pirated books, including political tracts from Taiwan, Hong Kong and translated bestsellers from abroad, to the latest Hollywood DVDs and banned documentaries critical of communism. Everything from socks, bracelets, mobile phone cases, flowers, incense, road maps, toys, tropical fruit, pet rabbits, freshwater shrimp, to fresh fish flopping in buckets — is offered in plain view but can be made to disappear in a moment’s notice.

When police from one of the two jurisdictions arrive, it often suffices for the fleet-footed merchants to shift to the other side of the bridge, and when law enforcement eventually shows up on the other side, to shift back again. Only during the more serious crackdowns, say during a ritual sweep before a major party congress, are the police actions synchronized to effectively clear the span of all vendors. There are poignant times of the day and times of the year when the bridge is strikingly uncluttered and empty, but it doesn’t stay empty for long.

A similar dynamic in the art of the possible is at work in Beijing’s bustling journalism scene. The days when the iron rule of political loyalty and conformity was the single most important force shaping Chinese journalism are gone, the single unified state narrative as espoused by People’s Daily a thing of the distant past. The old stalwarts such as the People’s Daily, faced with competition from a freewheeling commercial press, is rapidly becoming irrelevant fish-wrap. Like many a bloated, state-run enterprise on the verge of bankruptcy, subsidies alone can’t keep it current or competitive in market terms, it is steadily losing readership share to new, resourceful players.

Chinese journalists navigate this brave, new journalistic landscape by pluck and instinct, as the old red lines bend and break, as the old draconian restrictions are replaced by more inconsistent, laissez-faire environment. Censorship is still strictly imposed on selected taboo topics, Tiananmen or Tibet for example, but increasingly the old restrictions are met with defiance, the perimeter of acceptable expression forever being poked, stretched and widened. A combination of creative subterfuge and sheer resilience on the part of Chinese journalists keeps the press doggedly alive.

China is a big place. Different things can be expressed more or less freely in different places, playing one side of the bridge off the other so to speak. It is often the case that papers in south China can say things that papers in the north couldn’t get away with, and vice versa. This drives a practice known as yidi baodao, or “reporting far from home.” Like the vendors on the footbridge who shift from one end to the other to escape the police, wily journalists write for newspapers in province A to criticize corrupt officials in province B. This explains why Southern Weekend, (nanfang zhoumo), a weekly broadsheet published in the southern city of Guangzhou, is such a hit in a city as far north as Beijing.

Another way journalists here protect themselves is to assign important-sounding titles to relatively unimportant newsroom employees. That way, when official disfavor mandates the firing of an editor, the cut can be made with little cost to the real editorial power, and publishing as usual, if publishing under such conditions can be considered usual, resumes quickly. Sometimes prudence requires nothing more than substituting a pseudonym for a byline, something one Chinese-language newspaper requested I file under a different name for fear that any residual records of my reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests would bring unwanted attention to the paper. At other times prudence requires pulling punches and laying low until a given political storm dissipates and passes.

Despite the persistence of government “cleansing” and meddling, the commercial revolution in the media is impossible to ignore. The news kiosk below the footbridge is crowded; headlines sing and papers dance off the newsstands, promising a seductive read. The display is breathtaking compared to the dull, dusty communal fare distributed to the workplace just a few years ago when the workplace was the primary unit of political control.

Newsstands overflowing with printed matter are getting to be ubiquitous in the big city, but their offerings remain uneven. Today’s kiosks peddle everything from tough investigative reporting on corporate malfeasance to deceptive advertorials, from tabloids offering breathless scandal to fashion rags. Risk-taking for the risqué manages to get even scrupulously apolitical journalists into trouble with the law, as libel suits -another new twist to China’s complicated media scene -add to the hidden costs of the news.

It’s a guerrilla war of sorts, but it is not a war against the government per se, as is sometimes implicit in black and white foreign reports about the struggle for press freedom in China. Rather it’s more an uneasy alliance of earnest reporters and conscientious officials working in tandem for themselves and their country.

Accurate news reporting is useful, indeed essential, to provide an adequate response to epidemics and environmental disasters, and it serves an equally essential role in providing checks on out-of-control corruption and social injustice in a country in the throes of dramatic and fundamental change. Abuse of power, malfeasance, special interests, and a lack of transparency are the frequently the targets of this new Chinese journalism, and when a story is suppressed it is not because it is critical per se but because the criticism cuts too close to certain vested interests and certain power holders protected by the party.

By urgently addressing these issues before things spiral completely out of control, sometimes getting away with it, sometimes not, the Chinese press is both partner and adversary to the government by shining light in dark places. Properly understood, journalism is a supremely patriotic undertaking, helping society to correct itself, to address errors and grievances before things tumble out of control.

Be that as it may, doing real journalism in China remains a thankless job for the most part, low pay, high risk. Pursuing the truth conscientiously is not a career for the faint of heart, it has been in the past, and still is to some extent, a fast track to unemployment, prison or exile, in the intrepid tradition of Liu Binyan, Dai Qing, Li Datong and other spirited journalists who dared to speak truth to power.

But such lone courageous individuals are rare. Most reporting is couched in the realm of the possible, though not without integrity and not without risk. Even taking into account a certain amount of compromise, a watchdog press can serve as a curb on societal excess. Caijing, a leading business publication edited by Hu Shuli, has run several eye-opening investigative reports on real estate corruption in Beijing. The money may be lost forever, the injustice stands uncorrected, but every bicyclist and taxi driver in Beijing seems to know about it and real estate developers, who are corrupting the press with their own hidden agendas backed by lavish advertising, are subject to increased ridicule and suspicion.

Chinese journalists who came of age in the Deng Xiaoping era have been swept up as much by the turbo-capitalism Deng unleashed as a corrective to communistic excess as the pithy political injunctions he is remembered by. To navigate the uncertain terrain of this fluid, translucent world one must be opportunistic and observant, effectively “groping for stones as one crosses the river.”

Old draconian restrictions are lifted only to be replaced by extremely complicated and tricky new rules that effectively “democratize” the burden of censorship by making every editor, every writer, even bloggers, guardians of their own pen.

While residual heavy-handed censorship is disdained for its blatant clumsiness, there are ways around it with word of mouth and the Internet, but the new, insidious pressures to censor the net pose new fresh challenges. To some extent this can be met with creative subterfuge; irony, sarcasm, symbolic expression and other zigzag forms of subversive speech can withstand the befuddled gaze of the straight-laced censor. More corrosive of the net’s ability to provide reliable information is the epidemic of hate speech, ad hominen attacks and misinformation, polluting the well of public knowledge.

China is awash in a swirling sea of information, more than ever in its history, thanks to the Internet, cell phones, handy-cams, blogs, satellite television and newspapers. Increasingly you can find what you are looking for if you know where to look, but you must first master the art of reading critically, oftentimes between the lines.