Read about Natalie Felsen’s summer experience in China during the Global Scholars Program…
Preconceptions and the Chinese Press
By: Natalie Felsen, B.A. Political Science, Columbia College
I walked into China blind. I have no cultural affiliation with China, or linguistic familiarity with Chinese. My ties lie in Latin America. Yet my passion for international relations drove me to immerse myself in a nation completely outside the realm of my experience. China will likely shape the world more than any other nation over the course of this century; as I am driven by my passion for international law to understand the way the other regions of the world are developing, I must understand the repercussions of China’s meteoric rise.
I had come to China to study its remarkable growth through the Global Scholars program, a pilot program of the Weatherhead East Asia Institute aimed at encouraging comparisons between different regions of the world. I was the youngest of thirteen Columbia students, culled from multiple continents to circumnavigate the world. We would split our time between two of Columbia’s Global Centers, starting off our journey in Beijing and afterwards flying south to Santiago. Our experiences visiting both China and Chile would form the basis for thesis-length research papers to be written the subsequent fall.
I entered China with a few strong preconceptions, generated by my extensive research on Western news media websites. Relying primarily on that information was likely a mistake, as China immediately began to challenge the few preconceptions I had formed. One difference in particular struck me: the vibrancy of print media in China. In a nation infamous for its restrictions on press freedoms, I had imagined that newspapers would be under strict government control. Only the officially endorsed point of view would be expressed. Additionally, the print media would be hamstrung by online news sources, which would siphon their readership and thus their profits. Print media is a dying species worldwide, and China would be no exception.
How wrong I was. Print media is perhaps the most extensive form of media coverage within China, because it’s easiest to circumvent censorship. The farther a paper is located from Beijing, the more free its message. As such, many Chinese citizens subscribe to southern-based papers (and, when possible, access highly critical Hong Kong news outlets via Internet proxies). What’s more, the general public is blatantly skeptical of state-sponsored news outlets; as my professor noted, in a society in which freedoms are limited, people tend to suspect information that they receive from state sources. In contrast, people in societies which enjoy complete freedom of the press are more prone to simply accept what they are spoon-fed.
In this contrast, the purpose of our program was perhaps most clear. By traveling the world to study developing nations, we were meant to recalibrate our definition of developed. The mistrust which Chinese citizens harbored of official information is, in my view, sadly lacking in the Western world. I find that this attitude can be healthy, as it shakes the masses from complacency and generate change; yet without this discontent, society deteriorates as corruption occurs over the heads of an ignorant population. As Song dynasty philosopher Zhu Xi said, “Large skepticism leads to large understanding. Small skepticism leads to small understanding. No skepticism leads to no understanding.” In China, I was shaken from my simplistic viewpoint. My eyes were finally opened to the nuances of life in China.