Australian “journalist” Andrea Yu has been pilloried for asking soft questions at China’s CCP Congress. Beijing-based freelance journalist Kway Teow asks if the criticism is fair.
Poor Andrea Hodgkinson. Let the record show, your honour, that her crimes consist of asking questions at a press conference under an assumed name; of being Australian; and of responding too honestly to her various interviewers.
The first of those heinous deeds has already been committed by this correspondent. The second as well, actually. The last will hopefully never arise — that is the point of a pseudonym. It may not be why she chose to present herself as Andrea — or Andi — Yu, but it is her right to do so.
For those of you who don’t work in the media and have yet to be exposed to this latest round of lint carefully extracted from navels, Andrea Yu is the biggest thing to have come out of the just-concluded Communist Party of China’s 18th National Congress.
Held about every five years, the Congress is a preordained pantomime that brings the internet and much traffic to a halt as China’s new leaders are sworn in. They are selected rather than elected, months and months before the Congress itself — the phrase “leader-in-waiting“ has marched like a weary herald before the name of new President Xi Jinping for most of this year, and will continue to do so until March 2013 when he officially takes power.
This air of predetermination sends newspaper editors and journalists wishing and hoping and praying for a surprise, but China dispensed with most of the dramatics long before the Congress. Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing Party chief who was earmarked for power before a spectacular fall from grace, has turned into a uniquely Chinese bogeyman. “You heard of the big guy called Bo?” asks one local, covering her mouth with a scarf in case of watching eyes or cameras. “Cause too much trouble, and you might meet him.”
The Congress was at least noteworthy for cementing the ascendancy of the princelings, the children of influential Chinese officials who have been weaned on power and retained their taste for it. Xi, for example, is the son of a revolutionary leader and economic reformer, and he has managed the rare feat of simultaneously being chosen to lead the Communist party and the country’s military.
And while there have been calls for increased political and economic openness, particularly from China’s increasingly influential (and knowledgeable) base of social media users, the Congress hasn’t really changed very much about the lives of the vast majority of China’s populace.
Unfortunately, this makes for equally unexciting coverage. Which is where our new friend Andrea comes in.
In the Great Hall of the People, which squats elegantly at the western edge of Tiananmen Square, saying that it is uncommon for foreign journalists to feature heavily at press conferences is a bit like saying that it is unusual for snow to feature prominently in the Sahara. Yu was given four questions at at least two press conferences with party officials — a briefing that included officials from the National Development and Reform Commission, and a news conference with Jiang Weixin, minister and secretary of the CPC Leadership Group of the Ministry of Housing And Urban-Rural Development. Foreign eyebrows were jolted skywards, and the googling began.
Sample question from Yu: “Please tell us what policies and plans the Chinese government will be implementing in cooperation with Australia.”
Yu said she was representing Global CAMG Media International. Some digging from the ABC revealed that the company is in fact Beijing-owned, and her soft questions were essentially a way for China to control the English-language coverage of the event.
Andrea Yu (also known as Hodginkson) appears in this Chinese magazine, out today
The Wall Street Journalgot there first, getting Yu to explain the secret of her success and that her questions were pre-written by her Chinese colleagues. Then the ABC interviewed her, slinging some queries that were much harder than any Yu had asked. This has been celebrated as a victory for journalism; coverage of Yu hasn’t quite plumbed the depths of rancour reserved for Evil Journalism hall-of-famers like Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and Jonah Lehrer, but it’s coming close. The narrative is thus: here is foul play, here is white-anting of the media, here is Dorothy Dix and the rest of Santa’s reindeer.
There’s one element missing, however — a mention of the fact that the foreign media have been so starved of anything fun and quirky to report that Yu is a godsend. And while this piece is hardly an exception, there has been a noteworthy reaction from foreign journalists based in China. Most of those who spoke to Crikey were united by one emotion: sympathy.
Yes, Yu’s representation of the base and the goals of her organisation were unethical, but her position is tricky. This sentiment is best captured over at Sinostand, which points out the two axes used by many foreign journalists to plot a career on these shores: the difficulty of getting a job back home, wherever that may be, and the desire to work — to do any sort of work — to begin a career in the media.
To observers from outside the country, there is the common notion that working for a Chinese media company automatically means peddling and publishing propaganda. But whether it’s working to circumvent an oppressively totalitarian media regime, or an oppressively patriarchal, homophobic one, sometimes there is work that can be done from the inside.
Yu’s questions may have been soft, but no one has yet asked why it was so important that those particular questions were asked. There is value in reading between the lines, or in finding the line that the government is trying to peddle and working backwards from it.
Yu only comes across as naïve in her honesty. For most of the interviews, she is aware of her role, even if — like most young people slogging through a painful early job in the hope of something better — she doesn’t seem particularly proud of it. This magazine cover has been pounced upon, but as This American Life noted earlier this year, there’s a great demand for foreigners in the Chinese media.
The ABC demands to know: who is Andrea Yu? To the national broadcaster, she is either an innocent journalist or a cover girl, because these things are apparently mutually exclusive. Here’s a tip — she probably isn’t intent on taking over the world’s media from a secret island lair. She is an Australian who one day probably wants to become a journalist. She is young, and until recently her understanding of Chinese language and culture was a good thing.
And she was unlucky enough to have been that most appealing of things at an event characterised by colossal inscrutability and inevitability — an easy target.