ChinaFile

Gauging Bloomberg's China 'Rethink'

ChinaFile A conversation about the future of journalism in the world's largest country.

On March 24, a 13-year veteran of Bloomberg News, Ben Richardson, an editor at large for Asia news, resigned in protest. A few days earlier, company Chairman Peter Grauer had said that the news and financial information services company founded in 1981 by Michael Bloomberg "had" to be in China and "should have rethought" some of its recent stories there. Grauer avoided specifics, but it seemed clear that he was referring to a series of investigative reports on wealth in China produced by Bloomberg journalists over the last year. In that same period, Bloomberg's China reports won awards, its website was blocked in China, and sales there of its core product -- the Bloomberg terminal -- declined. Moreover, tensions grew between editorial staff and management. Richardson told media blogger Jim Romenesko that "a small group of incompetent and self-serving managers" at Bloomberg had "screwed things up for everyone else," confirming earlier reports that Bloomberg had compromised its journalistic principles for fear of losing business in China.  

David Schlesinger, founder of Tripod Advisors and former chairman of Thompson Reuters China: 

Bloomberg's chairman "rethinks," a journalist departs with a bang, and Bloomberg, which had led the way in authoritative investigative reports on the government-business nexus in China, becomes instead the poster child for the ills of the business-pressure nexus in journalism. 

Does this mean that it is impossible to do good journalism in China? Of course not.

In some ways, this is a golden age for foreign reporting in the People's Republic. Key wire services, newspapers, and magazines have more and better trained reporters in China than ever before, travel is freer, sources are more available and the amount of sheer official data, information, and verbiage that is turned out is unrivaled -- and almost impossible to keep up with. The trick is turning all this raw input into journalism of the highest order.

Bloomberg and the New York Times showed that weaving publicly available information with source material can yield treasures, but also bring China's wrath (or at least financial penalties). That's a big risk to take, but it is one worth taking and also possible to take, if you have courage and prepare the ground properly.

First, you have to be clear about what you are and what you stand for, and not let any opportunity go by without repeating it. Just as China repeats its "principled stands" on Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, etc., in word-perfect order year after year, so too I, when I worked for Reuters, would use that company's Trust Principles and fundamental journalistic values as the introduction to any official meeting. If your principles are strong and steadfast, they become something that has to be dealt with. If your principles can be rethought and changed, they become simply a negotiating point.

Second, you must make sure you have plenty of opportunities to talk about your principles. Government relations is not something that is just for crises -- it must be a key job for bureau chiefs, editors, and senior company officials year in and year out. Your reporting focuses should never be a surprise. Your standards should be the stuff of regular conversations.

Third, you have to be good. We know Bloomberg's first stories were good. The story that has caused the current uproar has not been published so quite honestly none of us can really judge. We have excellent reporters and editors saying it was ready to go, we have the editor-in-chief, himself an excellent journalist, saying it wasn't. Is this the reporter vs. editor tension that every organization has -- and which is actually what you need for quality -- or is it something nefarious? We really can't and shouldn't say. What we can say is that if you want to do tough reporting on China, your stories had better be bulletproof. Because the bullets will come.

Fourth, you have to be ready for all your preparatory work to be for naught and for China to sanction you. China has expelled reporters in the past, it can and has caused monumental and even insurmountable bureaucratic headaches for others, and it has caused economic harm by restricting sales and blocking websites. But China, with its 5,000 years of history, is excellent at playing the long game, and if you want to be in China that is the game you must play. Ignore quarterly results. Ignore annual profits. Concentrate on the long-term effects on your reputation and standing, and on the eventual need for China to be more open. 

Fifth, you need to get your stakeholders involved. You should be writing the tough stories because your readers need them. The banks and brokerages who subscribe to Bloomberg should be demanding more of the investigative reports because they help them make investment decisions. The exchanges who list Chinese IPOs should be demanding more of the reports because they bring needed transparency to the market. And if your readers aren't demanding the stories, you're either writing them wrong or you're not working with your readers closely enough. 

Sixth, you must be fair and acknowledge that China's reflexive paranoia that foreign reporting on China is out to "get" it can sometimes be stimulated by the stories themselves. If you go after the intricate relationship between business and government in China without going after the intricate relationship between business and government in the United States with the same fervor, you are doing no one any favors. If you write China stories loaded with snark and without empathy for China's point of view, you merely play into perpetuating an unhealthy antagonism instead of the healthy skepticism and drive for the truth that good journalism must be.

Chen Weihua, chief Washington correspondent, China Daily and deputy editor, China Daily USA: 

I think it's all a part of a longstanding struggle in newsrooms in China, the United States, and elsewhere about whether the financial bottom line should outweigh journalistic values.

As a journalist, I am all for good journalism. But, unfortunately, newsmen are often not the ones calling the shots these days. Yes, it's a compromise of journalistic values that no journalist wishes to accept or see. Ultimately, that's not why we're in journalism. 

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, a First Amendment lawyer by profession, suggested in 2010 that an endowment for news organizations be established -- like those that support universities -- so that the freedom of the press might be better protected. 

I can't remember how many U.S. newspapers have closed over the years. I think that approach represents a brilliant idea to rid journalists of unnecessary interference from the business side.

I don't think there is an ideal place for journalists anywhere. And the challenge in China is obvious.

A lot of people are fighting -- some may become heroes or martyrs overnight, but others fight for the long haul.

Dorinda Elliott, editor at large, ChinaFile:

If Bloomberg is really going to avoid politically sensitive stories in China going forward, as press reports are suggesting, it will be doing China a great disservice. The Chinese government has got to realize that a more professional, more open press will lead to more stability, not less. 

Surely Chinese President Xi Jinping knows that the media can help check corruption precisely at a time when he has made it clear he wants to put an end to that scourge, which is arguably the greatest threat to China's stability. Honest, investigative reports can also provide an escape valve -- a channel for airing of the frustrations that have been building over the cruel, dirty dealings of officials, sharpening income disparities, and fears about environmental disaster.

I was one of the jurors who chose Bloomberg's investigative stories on the wealth of Chinese leaders as the winner of the Asia Society's Oz Elliott Prize for Journalism last year. How sad, if the reports are true, to think that Bloomberg is now throwing journalistic integrity out the window for the sake of profits. Where will it draw the line? What if there is a negative China business development that might affect the markets; will Bloomberg pull its reporters off that one, too? And for that matter, will Bloomberg stop doing tough reporting on companies that buy its terminals? Where does it stop? 

A kowtowing Bloomberg would merely play into the hands of less enlightened propaganda tsars who don't understand that more discussion leads to more stability. China's more farsighted leaders know that a modernizing China inevitably will become more open. I should think Bloomberg would want to be on the right side of history.

David Bandurski, researcher at University of Hong Kong China Media Project: 

I see two crucial aspects to the question of where journalism in China (and on China) goes from here. First, there is the health and long-term development of Chinese news media. Second, there is foreign news coverage of China. In the past, these were two mostly distinct spheres, and the Chinese Communist Party leadership felt it could treat them as such. The party's priority was ensuring social and political stability at home by controlling, or "guiding," domestic public opinion -- which meant keeping a choke-hold on Chinese news media. Foreign news coverage was mostly a nettlesome question of China's image overseas, and after 2007 of its "soft power." 

In fact, most of the truly probing coverage was being done against immense odds by the Chinese media. Enabled by the explosive growth of social media in China, including platforms like Sina Weibo, the New York Times and Bloomberg stories shattered the wall between these two spheres. I remember watching David Barboza's story on the family wealth of then-Premier Wen Jiabao spreading like wildfire on Sina Weibo. It became a domestic news story, shedding unwelcome light on the business associations of one of the country's most loved and respected political leaders.

Now we've seen quite clearly China's response to this shift. The authorities are trying to stop future coverage of this kind by poisoning the roots -- denying visas to veteran reporters like Chris Buckley, and forcing Bloomberg to make a disgusting choice between strong journalism and a core business for which China is a major market. Another issue here is a revolution in available data and information for journalists about China, and a growing number of China lifers (as opposed to parachute journalists) who are able to parse that information and reveal its significance. I think we'll continue to see great reporting on China, but the costs of that reporting will have to be shared in new and innovative ways.

Ouyang Bin, associate editor at ChinaFile:

Facing similar conflicts between editorial values and business interests, the two leading American media companies made completely different choices. In public discussions, Bloomberg has become a villain, smearing the cherished values of the free press and independent journalism, while the New York Times is held up as a shining light of objectivity. Why?

It is difficult for me to think of Bloomberg as "media" in the same way I think of the Times. Unlike a traditional newspaper, Bloomberg also provides financial services through its terminals. It is a more comprehensive company. The news is not its most profitable component. When subscribers who pay a huge amount of money for Bloomberg terminals wake up and suddenly can't find any information about the Chinese market, we may better understand Bloomberg Chairman Peter Grauer's saying "we have to be there" and "we should have rethought."

Free press and independent journalism are something no media dares to say "no" to. But the cost of upholding these values is different for each player in every instance. The values may mean everything to some media but, to others, aren't worth sacrificing everything else for. Publishing a "sensitive" article may mean losing a work visa for a foreign reporter, but it could mean imprisonment for a Chinese reporter. Being disobedient may cause one journalist to lose the magazine she built over 10-plus years. Others using "self-media" can get shut down one day only to start over again a few months later.

It's pointless to discuss whether or not we should boo Bloomberg. Instead, we should consider the following two points: First, "media" has already become as broad a concept as "dog" -- Chihuahua to mastiff. Neglecting the differences between breeds is too simplistic. Second, moral constraint or professional conscience sometimes is weak and unreliable. Something else is reshaping and will redefine the concept of media. Stronger business concerns can force media to kowtow to power, but new technology may unintentionally reduce the cost of pursuing and upholding the values of journalistic independence.

Jeremy Goldkorn, founder, Danwei: 

Since the Qing Dynasty, foreign journalists in China have been a mix of carpetbaggers, phoneys, amateurs, businessmen, self-promoters, fantasists, and cowards as well a few people and organizations who make a genuine effort to tell stories that matter.

Bloomberg and every other foreign media company with a presence in China will, by their actions in the coming years, make clear which type of journalistic enterprise they are.

Photo: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

ChinaFile

A Back Door to Chinese Internet Freedom

ChinaFile It's based on a dare: block our sites, and risk losing billions.

In January, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a U.S. journalism nonprofit, published an exposé of the use of offshore tax havens by Chinese politicians and business moguls, the Chinese government blocked access to the consortium's website and to news articles about the report. Internet users in China trying to load ICIJ.org or follow-up stories by the Guardian, the New York Times, and other news organizations saw a familiar message: "This web page is not available."

So free-speech activists like those at the secretive anti-censorship website GreatFire.org deployed a way for Chinese to access the ICIJ report: They uploaded it to Amazon Web Services (AWS) -- a cloud-hosting service used by large companies around the world, including in China. Netizens then spread the word about the AWS link, which could be accessed without a virtual private network (VPN) or other privacy software. Posting the ICIJ report on Amazon was but one of the latest deployments of a strategy called "collateral freedom," the title of an April 2013 report by the Open Internet Tools Project (OpenITP), a New York-based nonprofit that fights government censorship around the world. It dares censors to block access at the cost of inflicting collateral damage -- in this case, on China's economy.

Amazon says thousands of Chinese customers, including major corporations, use AWS for database management and other cloud-computing applications. But just as businesses can store data on AWS, so can other users. This poses a dilemma for government censors: They can't selectively block content on encrypted cloud services, according to officials at GreatFire.org, OpenITP, and other Internet freedom advocacy groups. China must either tolerate the material -- or block AWS entirely and undermine the businesses using it. (Amazon did not respond to requests for a comment about the use of AWS by GreatFire.org and others to circumvent censorship in China.)

The OpenITP report introducing the concept was based on a survey of 1,175 Chinese residents who routinely "jump over the wall" to avoid the censors. These individuals, still a tiny minority of China's more than 600 million Internet users, use a variety of tools, from virtual private networks to GoAgent, a browser plug-in that runs on Google's cloud-hosting platform. But the tools have one thing in common: "the collateral cost of choosing to block them is prohibitive for China's censors," the OpenITP report stated.

That's because Chinese businesses also rely on VPNs and Google's cloud infrastructure, the study stated. "Our survey respondents are relying not on tools that the Great Firewall can't block, but rather on tools that the Chinese government does not want the Firewall to block," it stated. "Internet freedom for these users is collateral freedom, built on technologies and platforms that the regime finds economically or politically indispensable."

There are advantages to looking at Internet freedom "through an economic lens," said David Robinson, a technology consultant and visiting fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project who co-authored the OpenITP report. "Economic growth is a value that the United States and China share. The conversation about Internet freedom sometimes takes place in ways that seem distinctively American or distinctively Western." But, he said, more progress may be made if economic growth is the "central animating goal" of increasing access to information on the Internet.

The loudest cheerleader for "collateral freedom" in China has been an organization called GreatFire.org, which monitors and opposes censorship behind the so-called Great Firewall. The group has created four websites in the encrypted cloud out of otherwise blocked content. Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous spokesman for GreatFire.org, stated in an email interview that under the "collateral freedom" banner, his organization is "creating 'unblockable' mirrors via 'unblockable' cloud services." (Smith and other GreatFire.org officials refuse to give their real names or discuss specifics of their organization because they say they fear retribution by Chinese authorities.)

"Collateral freedom" can be exercised in two ways, and both entail trade-offs. When individuals install a VPN or similar tool, they can access any site (such as YouTube, Facebook, or NYTimes.com) that is blocked. But individual Internet users must implement this solution themselves on each computer or device -- a task requiring a certain level of technological competence. When an organization uploads otherwise-blocked content to the encrypted cloud, it can be accessed by anybody with a computer, potentially reaching a mass audience. But, of course, this frees only the uploaded material.

Using tools like VPNS are a far more common way for residents of China to circumvent the Ministry of Public Security's censorship and surveillance system, which is formally called the Golden Shield and colloquially known as the Great Firewall. The Great Firewall blocks access to thousands of websites focusing on what authorities deem politically "sensitive" issues or individuals (such as the Dalai Lama) or offering unfiltered discussions. The blocked sites include not only fairly obvious targets like the websites of human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Freedom House, but also news organizations such as Radio Free Asia and the New York Times and social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Many sites are blocked on moral grounds because they promote pornography or gambling. Other blocked sites are less predictable, ranging from Medicare.gov to Internet.org to a portal on Taiwanese culture.

GreatFire.org has only used mirror sites a handful of times. One reason the numbers are so small, Smith said, is that "it is a relatively new concept -- most people don't know [about it]. We have not had enough general press exposure to make people understand what it is using layman's language." Moreover, Smith stated, small websites that are blocked in China may lack the technical know-how or financial resources to create a mirror site on Amazon. And for a big site like the New York Times, "this is a major political decision which likely would involve trying to get people to buy in to the concept and for them to be willing to stand up to censorship in such a public way."

Collateral freedom faces other challenges. The content on AWS, for example, must use the http://s3.amazonaws.com domain name. This can result in unwieldy URLs like https://s3.amazonaws.com/icij/www.icij.org/project/zhong-guo-chi-jin-rong-jie-mi.htm.

The biggest challenge, however, is the potential pushback. What would happen if Chinese officials pressure Amazon to remove the content they want to censor? Or if China's government decides to cut off Amazon Web Services entirely? "There's going to be pressure on AWS," predicts University of Toronto researcher Jason Ng, author of the book and blog Blocked on Weibo. He said China might try to thwart collateral freedom by moving all of AWS's Chinese customers to a separate cloud and then blocking access to the domain used by GreatFire.org and other activists.

King-wa Fu, an assistant professor and censorship researcher at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, agrees that the Chinese government eventually will play hardball. If the mirror sites attract a tipping-point level of Chinese visitors, Fu fears "that the Chinese government would block Amazon or ask Amazon to take down the contents."

To date, activists who have posted otherwise-censored content on AWS have not heard from Amazon or Chinese authorities. "Not a peep," Smith said. "And I hope it stays like this." And what if the company asks GreatFire.org to take down its mirror sites? "We'd make as public a fuss about it as we could -- draw as much media attention to Amazon's practices as would be possible," Smith said. "We would not remove the material if they asked us to."

This article was produced by ChinaFile.

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