The Future of Independent Media – Chinese Independent Media Forum Seminar, July 21st 2013

The Future of Independent Media – Chinese Independent Media Forum Seminar, July 21st 2013

Editor’s note: The following is the translated transcript of a panel discussion on the future of independent media in China, hosted at the Chinese Independent Media Forum on July 21st, 2013. China Current’s Alexander Ye and Selena Li both took part in this discussion.

Xiong Yichi: Host

Susanna Cheung Chui-yung: Hong Kong Independent (battlefield) Reporter

Wang Haozhong: from Taiwan Coolloud.org

Alexander Ye: China Current Director

Selena Li: Former China Current Managing Editor

Wang Facai: from Aibaodao.com

Li Zhuo: from Ibeidou.net

Comparisons between Independent Media Living Environment in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong

Xiong Yichi: We have talked about this in private before with Chen Yiting and Wang Haozhong from Coolloud.org. It is your first time in Mainland China, you must feel that there are quite some differences with the groups of young people from Mainland China. People sitting in the audience today are all young Mainlanders, how are they different from the young people you see in your universities and research institutes?

Wang Haozhong: The sample of students I personally encounter in Taiwan is somehow biased. I am not that close to the regular students. Actually before I started working, I was taking part in social activities, so I suppose if they are quite different from Mainlanders it is because this sample is quite different. For instance if in Taiwan some students were to participate in international communication societies, they would also have this media experience but I don’t necessarily meet them very often.

Xiong Yichi: But don’t you have this impression that in terms of impression, if you had to tell the biggest difference between a young Mainlander and a young Taiwanese, what would it be?

Wang Haozhong: Honestly?

Xiong Yichi: Honestly.

Wang Haozhong: Honestly there aren’t that many differences. (Everyone laughs.)

Xiong Yichi: So there is still hope for Mainland China. (Everyone laughs.)

Wang Haozhong: Actually, I can’t really stand that Taiwan usually already considers itself as one of the “Four Asian Dragons” or as “Asia’s First Democracy”. It is often like Long Yingtai who took a trip to Mainland China and came back saying “Please convince me with civilisation”. It seems that Taiwan is like a top mark. That’s why in my speech today I am trying to avoid to make you look at me this way; but it has obviously failed as you are already talking about how “Taiwan is already like this or that”.

I think that in reality we are facing an important difficulty. When I came over I realised that you seem to think that we are already passed this difficulty, that we have to take the same path, let me warn you: “Don’t, let’s take another road!” (Everyone laughs) But we are not done comparing.

Xiong Yichi: We’re not. When he (Gong Te) was giving an example, your first reaction was “What about complaints channels?” He didn’t understand the first time you said it. You can see how the difference between Mainland China and Taiwan is quite big.

Wang Haozhong: What I call “complaints” aren’t necessarily legal complaints. Taiwan appears to be relatively legalised but there are very often unspoken rules. For some things it is difficult to define what is progressive and what is not, and such black and white argument.

For instance, Taiwan is now facing a situation that is diverse, everyone’s standpoint is not the same, but everyone can sit down together and talk, and when they are done talking they can still be friends without hostility. Taiwan is really like this. Sometimes I want to say “I don’t want to be your friend, could you not call me anymore?” But you can’t do that, they would still come back and say : “Come on, let’s debate about democracy!” (Everyone laughs.) But you know, I can speak for ages with these people and it would be of no use.  Once they heard my opinion they say “you’re just one element in a multitude of elements” then they put you there and in the end they still go in their original direction.

So what I want to say is that maybe Taiwan needs a revolution. (Everyone laughs.) This is our problem.

Also about Taiwan “civilised rationality”, it is just a way to acclimate people, it involves people on an emotional level… For instance Taiwan thirty years ago was good, if you saw something on the road that wasn’t right, maybe you would have pointed and cursed at it. A lot of Mainlander tourists who come to Taiwan are considered impolite and are criticised, but they are actually just speaking a bit loudly. Taiwanese nowadays speak very quietly on the streets, you can’t really hear them, that way is more polite as if their body was very soft and weak. When on the bus they encounter something uncommon, how do you think everyone reacts? They would stay silent and take a video and what then? They will expose it on the internet and ask the State to solve the problem.

People don’t have the ability to solve conflicts anymore, people have no power when a conflict happens. If somebody insults you, you don’t even have the ability to answer back. You have no way of empowering anything in the process of your life. But you think that everything can be resolved through the system, through the legal system, through the law so that those things can be properly taken care of. This is when people become civilised and rational like this.

Xiong Yichi: Do you think this is a nationality problem? The USA is also civilised and rational but if you break into my house there I would shoot you. They are a warrior nation as well.

Wang Haozhong: What I know well is the issue of sex. The subject of sex in the USA for example, the moral purety level is much higher than in Taiwan. I have a friend for instance who brought a Japanese porn movie involving teenage girls, a manga with cute girls in uniform something like that, he had it in his suitcase and he got arrested when he entered the United-States…

Xiong Yichi: America is very conservative.

Wang Haozhong: I find that you can’t just talk about how conservative it is. It is not a requirement; it is not one of these authoritarian countries. It is like if your country needs mobilisation it then needs harsh rules, America is not like this. It internalises into each person’s demand, as if you had your own little alarm, your self-recognition was already there.

Xiong Yichi: Right, this makes me think that the current situation in China is that traditional media go through some self-censorship before going through the official censorship and that’s quite frightening.

Wang Haozhong: All operations of power are like this, the stages of power development, each person’s mind will produce resistance through the course of practice of their own actions, that’s why there will be resistance in someone’s mind as well. This is a problem of order of importance, but what I am talking about is sort of a historical question. Now as for civilisation, what impressed me at the Beijing airport is how they have those notices in the toilets explaining what civilisation is; as in the toilet paper is here, taking one piece is being civilised. Everyone can’t stand these words because in Taiwan it is really like this: you find some things impolite.

Xiong Yichi: Are there similar signs in Taiwan?

Wang Haozhong: Taiwan is a bit more advanced than here so there is no need for them. (Everyone laughs.) Taiwan has already grown to value this kind of things.

Xiong Yichi: We can often see “a small step forward, a big step for civilisation.”

Wang Haozhong: There might be some like this.

Susanna Cheung: In Hong Kong there are some instructions sometimes, such as “don’t waste water”, “don’t waste paper”, “use the hand-dryer”. They are always about the environment, not civilisation. There aren’t any signs saying that if you take an extra piece of paper you’re being impolite.

Xiong Yichi: Actually when it comes to independent media, the future is in very, very big letters. It is very rare, let me repeat, very rare to have friends from three different places and to talk about everyone’s respective knowledge in life. About Hong Kong, I wanted to ask, the current Hong Kong legal system is both democratic and good, do you think it has a lot to do with the British colonisation?

Susanna Cheung: A lot of people say that Hong Kong legal system is what the British left for us, you can see it like this. But there are still a lot of injustices in our time that this legal system can’t prevent; it is also quite hypocritical sometimes, protecting vested interests for instance. But I don’t want to talk about this. You’ve just asked him about the differences between Taiwan students and Mainland students.

Xiong Yichi: Actually there are no differences, there are only hormones.

Wang Haozhong: I don’t think I have answered this question, we are way off. I think there are some different between young people but actually I am still looking forward to seeing some socialist heritage here. (Everyone laughs.)

Xiong Yichi: You should go to North Korea then.

Wang Haozhong: Right, you would get that kind of reaction in Taiwan. I mean I have read Maoist books myself in Taiwan. I don’t think that everyone who encounters difficulty will look for a previous case, for instance if you’re talking about the revolution or something else, in Taiwan first you’re laughed at and then you’re told “Go to North Korea and eat from the same pot with others”, it is mostly the kind of reactions you would get.

Susanna Cheung: Cuba, there is Cuba as well ha-ha.

Wang Haozhong: Exactly, it can be Cuba as well et cetera. You would meet that kind of reactions. I think that when you’re faced with that experience there is no way it these things can carry out because it is a closing this experience dialogue. In Taiwan you would encounter this kind of situation. I had the feeling previously that, including a few Mainland friends that I personally know, the differences with Beijing aren’t that many. No one has the power to excavate what is useful in this bad experience because we obviously need a kind of synthesis or a kind or modification if you want.

For instance whether China needs the Party system or the legal system against the problems it encounters, but there are a lot of the context that is suspicious in the back; for instance the extent to which the law actually defends private property. This private ownership in the Taiwanese experience produces frightening outcomes. I am not saying that it has no benefits, because a lot of common people now have access private ownership, they might even use terms like private property in their speech. In Taiwan many protests and social movements are like this. But as for some obvious problems, like housing prices: in cities housing is unaffordable, properties are a monopoly in the hands of very few people; the government does not have a universal land policy. I am not saying that China is doing much better of course. So what I want to say is that Taiwan is now currently a regime that China can refer itself to; also if socialism once represented a dream, can’t it be referred to as well?

Because in Taiwan through our discussion we hope that there could be a government like this, that would have some planning in the economic field, that would have some planning in its land policy; but I think that the mainstream ideology and the development direction are quite hard to discuss. China’s failed experience in the past has become one reason why it is taken for granted that this matter cannot be discussed. People would say: “Look, this is how it would end!” That’s why I personally find that young people from Taiwan and China aren’t different….  I asked Alexander Ye today if he knew about Utopia, he just said: “Ah, those 50 pence!” In Taiwan a common insult for us is “50 pence”. (Everyone laughs) In Taiwan when our speech is a little left wing, they all say things like: “Oh, you Communist!” ’50 pence’ is a common insult; in Hong Kong they would say ‘Leftist’. So when I am here with you I don’t think we have anything different, at this level we don’t have anything different with Taiwanese students or Taiwanese media, these media does not stop at independent or mainstream media; the civilised modern generation that everyone is pursuing or the imaginative institutional solutions are actually roughly one same thing.

Defining ‘Independent’

Alexander Ye: I have never been to Taiwan, what I know about Taiwanese media is limited to the fact that Taiwan is controlled by a few large consortiums, that’s why the question of independent media in Taiwan is significant. But today Wang Haozhong has told me: “Did you know that if we wanted to set up an independent media forum like this in Taiwan, it would be almost impossible to carry out.” I was startled because we are at disadvantage in politics. But he told me: “You can hardly tell in Taiwan in this context who is an independent media in the end.”

To come back to Susanna Cheung’s answer: “How do we define independent media in the end”, there are many layers to this question. Each person’s definition would be different, my hobby is like this, and your hobby is like that. But what I find of great value today is that maybe we all have different views on what is an independent media but we still sat together and we are discussing the direction we want to take. This allows me, and maybe everyone sitting here, to be pleasantly surprised.

I think if we can find common points then I believe the ‘independent’ in ‘independent media’ could become even more important. I can’t remember who said today that if you want independence, you have to be independent yourself first, you have to have this independent spirit, you have to criticise and really think about things, so I was thinking, couldn’t this group be called an independent organisation? Wang Haozhong was also saying: “we are called ’50 pence’ in Taiwan.” But I think he has really been thinking about the Taiwanese institutions and he is able to tell me the advantages and problems of the Taiwanese system, he can really think! The situation in Mainland China is quite similar, and then they still say ’50 pence’…

Xiong Yichi: We are called “50 American cents”, saying that we are America’s poodle or something like that. (Everyone laughs.)

Alexander Ye: I am quite happy with that. If we want to impose a definition then saying that we are a group of young people with an independent spirit might be a better choice.

Susanna Cheung: Why should we define it as soon as we start? Let’s see how everyone understands this independent media concept. Because I have a lot of contacts with Mainland media, they think that I can get rid of the official matters and that this is independence, they think that the business press are independent media; it is quite a blurred concept. So I would like to know how you understand it. Also, I have become aware of this phenomenon: media in Mainland China are divided. There are the ’50 pence’ ones like the Global Times and there are also liberal ones like the Southern Group. But I don’t find them that separated in the end. Because on the one hand they follow the official line, and on the other hand what I find very curious is that a few of my media friends find that our viewpoint gets rid of the Chinese official viewpoint to become pro-American.  They think that only the American viewpoint can confront the Chinese one. I think this is very wrong.

Xiong Yichi: It is a bit overkill.

Susanna Cheung: In the end, we are going in a circle. In the end you might get back to the point you were criticising.

Wang Haozhong: If recently we have reached deep thoughts it is because… we have never directly faced this interview but only ran into the side surface…. You see when Chen Guangcheng ran to the American embassy; he could have gone to Taiwan to pick up oranges. When we saw Snowden who had no place to go, the whole world was in touch, this situation was quite obvious; because Taiwan’s opposition parties would have held a press conference with Chen Guangcheng or something like that.

Xiong Yichi: Your legislation is very powerful. Even though everyone would take pictures of wrong behaviours on the bus, but the legislation is still very powerful.

Susanna Cheung: Very powerful. “I am very glad to fight along with you after a while”, it is all like this. Cameras are recording, we are fighting, even though at the end everyone keeps on eating their meal or whatever they were doing. (Everyone laughs.) There are all kinds of markets, so they all have to perform to their respective market.

Xiong Yichi: What Alexander Ye just said was very important, how if we have self-criticism and an independent spirit, aren’t we then independent? It made me think… When I was in my second year at uni, so about three years ago, there was this blockbuster movie in China called “Let the Bullets Fly”. The director was Jiang Wen and at the time the 700 million sold tickets broke records; but now “Little Times” can get over 700 million as well. One can imagine how the film industry is booming in China right now. In “Let the Bullets Fly” there is a scene with the main female character, Jiang Wen’s wife, I can’t remember her name…She is holding a gun pointed at her enemy and another gun pointed at her. I think this is, to some extent, a revolutionary stance, an independent attitude. In any situation you have to point a gun at your enemies but at yourself as well.

The Mission of Independent Media

Li Zhuo: Hi everyone, I am from Ibeidou.net, but I am only representing myself in my following speech. First a lot of things have already been said. When we were talking about the Communist Party everyone seemed to put it in a position that might induce a conflict of interest for us. But doesn’t the Chinese Communist Party have a planning process because it cannot be that it doesn’t see the trends of the world and the results of development on many levels under the Party rule? It also knows that although it has a sense of planning, it knows there is less time, so that’s why they are no letting us run independent media. Because Alexander Ye told me that sentence which left a deep impression in me; he was just drawing a hypothesis, he said: “If I were your editor, you could raise opposing views to me; but for efficiency reasons I wouldn’t want to hear your opinions, you would just have to obey me.”

Isn’t the relationship between independent media and the Party or the government just like that? The Chinese Communist Party finds that if your current goal is not consistent with theirs, then for the sake of efficiency they can not allow you to speak first and then you would say if you’re okay with it. If our goals aren’t the same then what we want is freedom of speech, but what does the Communist Party wants? Maybe what it wants is even bigger. We are more expectative to say it a bit more innocently. It wants national revival; then with our wish for freedom of speech aren’t we a little too insignificant compared with national revival?

Wang Facai: I have a different proposal, what do I estimate an independent media person is? The limitations are the wall and us: independent media persons. We are constantly in touch with the gap and edges of the wall. As the number of independent media will constantly increase and go touch the gap, people won’t even need to push the wall, it will scramble on its own. This wall is not hard to push and if we keep on touching the edges just like a needle gets into sore spots then maybe it will heal itself, or maybe if it doesn’t heal it will naturally disappear.

Li Zhuo: What is this wall? The press regulations or the national development?

Wang Facai: What this wall is, everyone can understand on their own.

Xiong Yichi: It’s a kind of ties or restrictions… or ceiling.

Li Zhuo: I prefer to see it as a kind of obstacle to national development.

Xiong Yichi: It is just like what Hilary Clinton said in 2008 during her concession speech, she emphasised that even though a female president hadn’t been established this time, but the ceiling that obstructed the possibility of a female president throughout history had suffered 16 million cracks and we will crack it out completely one day. It is the same meaning.

Selena Li: I find that when we make hypotheses, we take a large organisation or a political party or let’s say a media or personification, and we speculate on what kind of ideas it has, if it reasonable or not. I think we should all have a consensus about that because a large organisation doesn’t take decisions based on one single person; in the end the decisions is made according to all parties’ opinions or each parties’ interest. I also hope that we can all at last reach a rational direction which provides a way for everyone to express their benefit demands.

The Future of China Current: Funding and Independence

Selena Li: What I find particularly interesting is that when Haozhong was speaking this afternoon, what he sharing with everyone is also what I am interested in. Why are we so concerned about History? It is like Haozhong said, Coolloud.org or yesterday NGOs in Taiwan are their history but isn’t it possible that it will become the future of many independent media and NGOs in Mainland China? This is the reason why we urgently need you to come over and share your experience with us.

In the past those anti-Party, anti-government, anti-national environmentalist groups were suddenly speechless because what they need to oppose now is a private firm. This firm was once the ally they stood side by side with before they had established such a mature civil association. They have once been funding or at least helping this kind of NGOs and independent media.

And we are saying that through these channels we release our personal source of capital, we don’t have our own source of earnings; we use fundraisings to reach independence for ourselves. So how do we make ourselves scientifically neutral? How do we make our representation even more rational? Without such financial magnates, large foreign investments, the influence of wind-power building companies, in reality it is a real concrete issue that independent media and Taiwanese NGOs are facing. Let me make a non-rational hypothesis, if someone was to donate money to Coolloud.org today, just like you said, you would be afraid to be coerced, but let’s suppose these people who donated money develop some kind of panel discussion then wouldn’t you feel compelled?

Wang Haozhong: What sort of panel discussion?

Selena Li: I mean even though they are a different entity, they donated money to Coolloud.org so they would like to develop some kind of unity in the views expressed, they would have a common interest and would want you to display that interest. What do you think your choice would be under these circumstances? Or more precisely what would Coolloud.org’s choice would be?

Wang Haozhong: As our financial resources are decentralised and come from various entities we essentially preventively worked on avoiding such situation. Such thing shouldn’t happen when it comes to specific topics and events either.

Selena Li: So you think that maintaining the independence is a major thing and one important point that needs to be maintained is the decentralisation of the possibilities to be coerced by other people.

Wang Haozhong: But I cannot say that this is generally applicable, I can only say that this is a method we try to put in place in our development process because in reality we have encountered once someone with an enormous amount of money to donate. After this experience we opted for our current fundraising system. Actually our fundraising system also has different stages depending on the proportions. We have had single donations etc. but why should we move to regular and fixed amounts, emphasizing smaller amounts? It is because we have had those past experiences so we developed in this direction.

Alexander Ye: Selena Li just said that “Your history is our future”, there is a special meaning in this sentence. When I had the chance to go to Hong Kong, a lot of my teachers told me that what we had was insufficient. Then I was quite worried, I was really anxious, until the first day, I truly knew what I had to face. Because in Mainland China we didn’t have a media that did investigative reports and collects commentaries, there was no precedent. After I arrived in Hong Kong I realised that there were precedents and that they have been doing it for a long time. Thereupon my teachers told me: “You’re wrong about this and that”. After I truly had a brief exchange with Hong Kong independent media I realised that their history is the same as the road we are taking right now. All the problems they encountered at the time we are encountering them now. None of them gave up and that especially makes me feel relieved.

Haozhong was just saying that this was applicable to their system but what is more important to us, especially to independent media that have just emerged in Mainland China, is that in any case we have to make a choice, even make it a standard for consideration. We have to think what road we should take, what road we should choose so that we can keep on living and walk better. What moves me in particular is how your history might be our future.

Selena Li: Even though Haozhong introduces us to Coolloud.org’s experience today, it is not applicable to China Current because China Current has no way so far to open our donation channels. Maybe we have no way of implementing the ideas we heard of today, but maybe in the future we will have this possibility? I think it is very, very important for everyone to look towards the future.

Susanna Cheung: As I listened to you it made me think that there were a few NGOs who kept emphasising their independence and then a rich man donating a large sum of money, I think some kind of foreign foundation; they said: “We are donating money but we won’t be controlling what you are doing”. They all thought that taking the money wouldn’t have any influence on us, that is was very good, that we could maintain our independence even though we accepted such and such donations.

There was an independent media that had just started concerning the development of democracy in Hong Kong. Then this group told me: “There is this foreign foundation which offered us money” And do you know why they didn’t accept it? Slowly he felt that it would have no influence on their independence, that there would be such a situation, such a choice. I think that in the future when you want to take the road of independent media in Mainland China surely a lot of people will approach you, especially when it comes to foreign foundations. Independent media can appear in China but there are few of this kind and you will have to think about how it will affect you. But their influence is not easy to see, they are very ingenuous, letting you think that you are keeping your independence and running things according to your own ideas.

Wang Haozhong: Providing scholarships and educational outputs…

Susanna Cheung: Ha ha ha! For instance, there is the Hong Kong Community TV, a community television station in Hong Kong. They asked me to do an interview, I went with a friend. When I arrived, I said: “Your office building is in Wan Chai, you must quite rich.” You know how the rent is expensive in Hong Kong. They could afford a very expensive location and hire a few full-time employees. They are a community media which emphasises their independence and how they want to be the voice of the community and democracy. So I asked “How can you afford this full-time employee and an office?” They said that this money comes from a Hong Kong Democratic Foundation – it is just an example, I can’t remember exactly. I asked who was I charge of this Hong Kong Democratic Foundation. He said it was a former Hong Kong officer. So I asked if he is a civil servant, how does he have so much money? To put it bluntly, he is backed by the American Democratic Foundation.

So when it comes to the future, I think we have to be extremely careful. In this respect a lot of differences seem to be neutral… We ought to be very vigilant.

Conclusion

Xiong Yichi: I think it is already quite late, I have seen everyone today, not only the people on stage. There were also discussions between two, or three or four people offstage. I feel like there is a stream of consciousness – two people’s brains were joined and information was exchanged. I believe this is the value of independent media. This is the value of this event, this platform, this environment. I think today… No, I am not going to express any message. The message is ‘Let’s get some rest!’. Everyone is quite tired already.

Susanna Cheung: Can I say one last thing? Before you asked about young people in Taiwan and Mainland China, I’d like to talk about the differences I have observed between young people from Hong Kong and Mainland China. There are a lot of Mainland students who come to Hong Kong to pursue their studies; it is very easy to distinguish them. I often do lectures in universities. In the lecture hall, the ones sitting at front are all from Mainland China, the ones at the back are students from Hong Kong.

Xiong Yichi: How assiduous and hardworking.

Susanna Cheung: What really impresses me is that Mainland students are really studious; Hong Kong students are often there by virtue of their money. Mainland students have a lot of questions, they are very curious about the world, they make me see hope. But the other party really knows how seize opportunities and I don’t think it is a bad thing. Sometimes they also consider themselves too important because they know how to run their capital. Mainland students use their curiosity and hard-work, if they could take the group into account, see the big picture… a few dreams… it would make me look at the future.

Xiong Yichi: Here is some applause.

Selena Li: I would like to thank everyone for being here today and for sharing so many opinions. Our discussion forum continues tomorrow. Thank you Prof. Cheung for sharing so many views.

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