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“You must do your own research in China”
After nine successful years, the journalists’ exchange program "Media Ambassadors-China –Germany" has come to an end. Alumni of the program over the years, important figures in the field of Sino-German relations as well as program coordinators from the Robert Bosch Foundation and the International Media Center at HAW Hamburg recently met to commemorate and celebrate the achievements of the program.
"We will continue to make our contribution to fostering a dialogue between German and Chinese journalists," said Christian Hänel, head of the International Relations America and Asia of the Robert Bosch Foundation. Even if the "Media Ambassadors China – Germany-program" is discontinued in its current form, the exchange of journalists will continue, Hänel commented in his opening statement.
While highlighting the positive outcome of the program, he went on to say: “In the last nine years, more than 130 journalists from China and Germany have participated in this program, some of who later became foreign correspondents or were promoted to senior positions.” The program also reflects on the political and economic changes in both countries, according to Hänel. Over the years, participants reported on major topics such as the refugee crisis, environmental pollution issues or the crisis in traditional media. For this reason and many others, the engagement needs to be continued.
Hänel conveyed a special vote of thanks to Professor Dr. Steffen Burkhardt from the International Media Center at the HAW Hamburg, whose vision, commitment, expertise and hard work helped shape the program. Thanks to a successful cooperation between the partners, the program could grow and achieve its purpose.
While sharing his thoughts, Professor Dr. Steffen Burkhardt also thanked Lillian Zhang and Haifen Nan, the two program coordinators who have played a significant role in shaping the program. They designed and implemented the study program, accompanied the scholarship holders in the respective countries, found suitable host media for job-shadowing, and made themselves available as points of contact around the clock. "We are celebrating not only the program, but also the German-Chinese friendship," Burkhardt said.
Today the "German-Chinese Media Network", the alumni association of the program, has more than 60 active members. "The more we learn of China, the less we understand," Nan said, even for her, as a native Chinese. That is also another reason, why exchange is so important.
EXPERIENCES IN CHINA
Reporting from China is not always easy, according to Rob Schmitz, Shanghai correspondent of the American broadcaster National Public Radio and keynote speaker of the event. As a correspondent he had many freedoms, but encountered difficulties as well. Sometimes his editors back home annoyed him with their special wishes. For example, in the spring of 2011, when the Arab Spring demonstrations and revolts took place in Tunisia, the main topic in China was the booming economic growth. However, Schmitz received a call from his employer at the time: the editors wanted to have a story about the alleged uprisings in China and the big panic before the protests. "We read it in the New York Times," was their reasoning. Days later, Schmitz met his colleague from the New York Times and on asking about the source of his story, the colleague complained: "My editor so dearly wanted me to write the story because he read it in Reuters." This is the daily grind of a correspondent in China.
How can you tell that there are rapid changes taking place in China? Schmitz had long considered this question before he synthesized his thoughts into his book "Street of Eternal Happiness". In it, Schmitz portrays people who, like him, live in Shanghai on Chang Le Road. The "Road of Eternal Happiness" leads through the former French Concession, where many foreigners live today. The people in Schmitz’s book represent the possibilities, hurdles and changes that many Chinese people have faced in recent years. An accordion-maker who also sells sandwiches, for example: "Such people and their stories, you can only find in Shanghai", Schmitz said. One of Schmitz’s neighbors is a woman, whose only possession for a long time was a coffin. As a child she got cancer and her parents didn’t believe she would ever survive. Her illness also made it difficult for her to find a husband and raise a family. Still, she has survived and today she sells flowers, hoping to help her son find a suitable bride. "These are incredible stories and are worth being told," Schmitz says.
THE FUTURE OF THE GERMAN-CHINESE JOURNALIST EXCHANGE
The concluding part of the program was a podium-discussion between the alumni of the program focusing on the future of Sino-German media exchange.
“How did you benefit from participating in the media ambassador program?" Ariane Reimers, former ARD correspondent in Beijing, asked the panel. On the podium are Ruth Fend, Editor-in-chief of NEON magazine, and Felix Lee, China correspondent of the German newspaper taz, both Media Ambassadors in China in 2010. Fend and Lee shared the panel with Chinese journalists Yang Xiao and Wang Yan. Yang now works as a freelance journalist and took part in the program in 2012. Wang represented the 2016 Media Ambassador group. Yang stated that the program gave him the opportunity to reflect on his own work. Wang recalled she had many misunderstandings about Germany, but felt that the program has enabled her to reflect them. The 27-year-old wrote about her experiences for the German magazine Spiegel online. Nobody in Germany understands why she likes to nap at midday, Yan said. On the other hand she was very surprised to see the number of journalists older than 40 she met in Germany, "In China, most journalists are in the age group of 20 and 30 years". Yang Xiao agreed. He thinks many people in China stop working as a journalist because it is a difficult field to earn a lot of money in. Senior journalists have to contribute more, but not necessary better compensated than younger ones, who can work more flexibly than their senior colleagues.
There are still many major differences in the journalistic practices in both countries. The way that the editorial room looks, how social media and information sources are handled and also the interpretation of the concept of freedom of press. "We were not welcomed in the editorial conferences", Ruth Fend remembered about her time in China. "When I arrived at the editorial office, everyone was gone," recalls Felix Lee. The colleagues were researching, he was told. "In Germany, one gets used to the fact that most journalists come to work in the editorial office." Lee was particularly impressed when colleagues took him for research. “In China, you have to check every fact by yourself”, he was told, "At least critical journalists do it because they do not believe other sources."
The internet and the rise of social media have also changed China, Lee said. When he came to China as a correspondent in 2011, he thought the microblog service Weibo would increase freedom of press. After having spent a lot of time in China, he is surprised to find that more and more people seemed to be relying increasingly on rumors for information, rather than on facts. "I would never have thought that to be possible," Lee said. Germany is no exception. "It is difficult to place well-researched stories," says Yang, "especially in social media, what counts are click numbers and the entertainment factor of a story.“
When Lee and Fend went to China in 2010, the country was "the place to be". Nowadays, not so many people want to go to China, Lee said. The interest in topics is still there, but the curiosity of the audience can be/ is limited. He is often asked not to use more than two Chinese names per article. "Issues from or about China have to fit and be appropriate to the medium," said Editor-in-chief of NEON Ruth Fend. Stories covering "the highest, the fastest, the best “ are perennial best sellers.
‘Are three months spent in another country enough to qualify someone as a media ambassador?’, Ariane Reimers asked. "Ambassador is a huge word. However, as long as you are open and willing to indulge into the other culture, you are qualified“, that is the conclusion. Only language, says Wang Yan, can sometimes still pose a problem.