World Agenda

Last updated: 17 january, 2011 - 11:51 GMT

China’s changing attitude to journalism

Paul Lin of BYD Autos in Shenzhen, with BBC Business Correspondent Peter Day and producer Julie Ball

Paul Lin of BYD Autos in Shenzhen, with BBC Business Correspondent Peter Day and producer Julie Ball

As Global Business starts a series of programmes about the winners and losers of China’s economic boom, BBC Business Correspondent Peter Day explains why it has become much easier than it used to be to speak to and report on China’s ‘dispossessed’.

When I started reporting from China for the BBC some 15 years ago it was both very exciting and very frustrating.

China was obviously the place where one of the great economic events of our lifetime was taking place.

It was creating a huge global manufacturing machine, an industrial revolution to eclipse what happened in Britain and Germany in the early 19th century and the USA in the 20th.

It was crying out to be reported – and not just from the capital Beijing.

Tax on journalism

Producer Julie Ball’s perspective

This was my third trip to China with Peter. We both noticed that people were more outspoken, from farmers to victimised house owners, economics professors to migrant workers.

Things have changed in the past two years, although state control is still there in the background. One family we visited who had made complaints in the past were called in by their village council to ask why they were speaking to foreigners.

One day our fixer received a phone call suggesting we should visit a woman protesting over the demolition of her ancient Beijing family home, who was threatening to set herself on fire in protest.

We obviously could not attend if it meant this would encourage her to carry out her threat. After some discussion and a call with the woman to ensure she would not carry out her threat, we decided to go along. Despite having their homes bulldozed, the residents had continued to occupy the land for the past five years, preventing development. People power can work it seems, even in China.

A few tips for journalists working in China: Don’t expect to get your visa until two days before you leave, however far in advance you apply; the pollution is terrible, don’t be surprised if you don’t see the sky for several days; and get out of the main cities if you can, there are great stories to be found.

In those days the Chinese authorities imposed irritating requirements on journalists visiting from abroad.

You had to be ‘invited’ to most parts of China outside the capital by the foreign affairs department of the province you wanted to visit.

Once the visit was approved, the department would provide a ‘host’ to escort the reporting team everywhere.

In effect you travelled with your own censor; while paying for their travel, meals and accommodation.

Some were very helpful, with local insights and knowledge.

But most ‘hosts’ were just a drain on proceedings, a barrier to meeting real people and a sort of tax on journalism because of the cost.

Hearing the other side

And so it was with great joy that, over breakfast in Beijing one morning in December 2006, I read in China Daily that the restrictions on travelling journalists were being relaxed for the 2008 Olympic Games.

For the first time, this made it worthwhile travelling into the countryside, dropping in on people at random.

It was also possible to hear the other side of the great Chinese industrial revolution – to listen to some of the two million people pushed aside by the giant Three Gorges Dam project, for example.

Uninhibited interviews

The authorities did not re-impose the restrictions on reporting after the Olympic Games, thank goodness.

So on our last visit we were able to go up the Yangtze River to examine another huge engineering scheme – the South-North Water Transfer Project, designed to bring what is said to be abundant water from the south to the parched cities of the north, with a huge new series of canals that will take 20, 30 or even 50 years to complete.

Peter Day with fixer Gemila Li (centre) interviewing a local environmental activist on the banks of the Han River

Peter Day with fixer Gemila Li (centre) interviewing a local environmental activist on the banks of the Han River

We heard from farmers whose land is to be flooded by the new feeder lakes, uninhibited in talking about their plight into a BBC microphone.

They are resigned, puzzled and frustrated by the inadequate compensation they are getting.

One relocated family, in a newly built village close to the giant Danjiangkou reservoir on the Han River, had a poignant and revealing observation which summed up the mood of the dispossessed.

“We are one family, China is a bigger family,” they said. Finally, their voice is one we can now hear.

Peter Day's report, China's Dispossessed, will be available to listen to click here

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