Sunday, August 14, 2005

Precis for Porter's Reporting the News from China

A few months back I wrote about the importance of writing precis, as a way of keeping track of many of the books I've read in the course of my graduate studies, and preparing for research papers and (eventually) my thesis.

Precis are invaluable. Try writing a research paper, and refering to a quote in a book you have read for an earlier class. Most likely you'll remember the subject, but do you remember the book's title or author? Or, you want to brush up on what a seminal title said. Is it a good use of your time to re-read the entire book?

It's situations like these where precis come in handy. They can eliminate hunting through old notes and old papers, or searching among multiple texts about the same topic at the library. Properly written precis can save time when you need that crucial quote, or want to evaluate the differences of opinions among different scholars who discuss the same issue.

There are two ways to prepare a precis: Reading the entire book, and then immediately writing down the answers to the main questions as described in my precis outline. Or, reading the book and preparing the precis simultaneously, taking extra care to transcribe quotes and page numbers. The former method is quicker, the latter method is better if you anticipate quoting from the book in your own work. Now, as I prepare to start my thesis proposal, I am mostly using the latter method.

I would also like to note that I don't write precis for every book I read, especially for those books assigned as class reading and textbooks which I know I will never use for papers or future research. At other times, I prepare short precis, no more than a page or two long, if only one chapter of the book is relevant to my research or areas of interest.

Below I am going to give an example of my most recent precis, for Robin Porter (ed.) Reporting the News from China. It is quite thorough, as it is one of the few sources about the inner workings of the Xinhua Englsh-langauge wire service.

A few additional things I would like to mention about precis:

1) Writing your precis on a computer, as opposed to writing it on paper, holds several advantages. First, it's easier to copy, backup, and transfer, compared to a paper precis. And secondly, writing a precis on a computer allows you to search for it months or years later, when you might not remember the title or author. Mac OSX and Windows XP allow you to search all the documents on your hard drive by content as well as title, meaning if you need to find a precis and you are sure it contains the phrase "NATO" all you need to do is open the search progam in OSX or XP, enter the term, check off that you want to search the content of files, indicate you want to search the entire hard drive, and wait a few minutes while the program brings up all the hits, including the precis containing "NATO"

2) Writing a precis usually takes several sessions, and I always make sure to save the current session under a new file name, usually by changing the date at the end of the file name. So, for instance, the Porter precis below is porterChinaReporting081005.doc, but I also have two earlier versions ending in 080205 and 080505.

3) After writing a new version, I always email a copy of the precis to myself, usually to my work email address. This is to ensure that I am not stuck if my computer dies (not likely, it's a Mac!).

4) In my precis, I always use page numbers when I quote or summarize an author. It is absolutely necessary to do this if you want to save yourself a lot of trouble when preparing footnotes or bibliographies.

5) I like to transcribe direct quotes, if the quote is particularly observant about a certain issue. It reduces the chances of misrepresenting another author later on, and also is useful for inserting quotes into research papers, proposals, and theses.

OK, without further ado, the precis for Porter's Reporting the News from China. Note I left the "Thesis" line empty, as it is a collection of other people's writings, not just Porter:

Precis: Reporting the News from China, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, 1992

Read: August 2005

Author: Robin Porter, ed.

Author’s Intentions: To examine the role of foreign reporters and journalists in China, who are responsible for creating the reports which lets people all over the world understand China. The struggles they face, the prejudices they have, etc. will be examined in the reports in this book. Also examines the effect foreign journos had upon their Chinese counterparts. China’s foreign-targeted media will also be examined.


Type of History: Accounts of foreign reporters, editors, and advisors working in the China in the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s

Structure of argument: The experiences and opinions of foreign journos working in China are used to give a picture of Western and Chinese newsgathering practices, issues, and problems.

Evidence used: Based on personal experiences and opinions. Very few sources cited; as one writer put it, he was writing an essay, not a scholarly work

Ideological orientation: This book is written from an Anglo-American journalism perspective, and is generally critical of Chinese journalism. Only one person (Robin Porter) attempts to defend Chinese journalism practices or put Chinese journalism in the context of political, social, and employment environments of China.

Strengths of book: Western complaints about Chinese journalism, and Western news media outlets' shallow attitudes toward reporting news about China are well known. But this collection of essays excels at detailing the inner workings of Chinese English-language news media (Xinhua, and China Daily) and also the day-by-day issues that arose reporting Tiananmen Square demonstrations in May and June of 1989

Weaknesses: 1989 was not just something that affected Tiananmen and Beijing … it had repercussions across the country, but there are no reports or observations about what happened to media or journos in other parts of the country.

Contributions to the Field: Books written by Western journalists who were in Beijing in 1989 are common (Jan Wong’s Red China Blues, etc.) This is the only book I am aware of that really gives a behind-the-scenes look of the affect on China’s English-language media at that time.


Robin Porter: “Shaping China’s News: Xinhua’s Duiwaibu on the threshold of change”

My summary: Porter has a generally negative appraisal of XNA DWB, for many reasons. It would have been good to get some figures on output.

DWB – “External Department”

Page 1 “XNA remains something of an enigma to Western students of Chinese affairs.”

1 – “The conflict between the reporting of news and the more manipulative function of propaganda, apparent in the reports of the Yanan era, has persisted ever since in the work of Xinhua, not least in its external news service, the Duiwaibu.”

1 – essential to understanding duiwaibu is understanding the role of party and politics upon editorial content. However, other factors include skills and attitude of journos, various structural factors, which affect what the journo may write

1 – she seems to be writing about 1979 in particular – China Daily not yet on the scene; therefore XNA had a monopoly of distribution of official news abroad

2 DWB is under the National Division of XNA (as opposed to International Division) and is responsible for disseminating news abroad about developments in China

3 – DWB divided into sections: political, economic, cultural, and work on two teams – morning and evening. “Each section puts out stories about events in China within its sphere that are considered likely to be of interest to outsiders, or that are of political significance in the view of the party.”

3 – most work done in Chinese and then translated into English. French, Spanish, Arabic stories translated from English. Russian and Japanese, directly from Chinese.

3 where stories come from:

- XNA branches in local cities and towns
- Reports from national or local papers (not XNA)
- Special journals or handouts from government organs
- Memos from ministries, especially Defense and FM
- Investigations by DWB staff (mostly around BJ)
- Investigations by domestic XNA staff (mostly around BJ)

4 DWB workflow
- DWB section journo will write up story in English, using his own research or other sources
- Section head may (or may not) review
- Foreign proofer reviews, corrects, comments
- Goes to daily editor, who will give it careful scrutiny – may approve, send back for revision, or withdraw it (rare)
- Quick inspection by head of DWB or other senior editor
- Immediate transmission on wire, and publication in Xinhua Bulletin

4 – Porter doesn’t believe all XNA output is propaganda – doesn’t take into account tensions between news and propaganda functions of XNA

5 “… the journalist is faces with the dilemma that he must both report accurately on all aspects of life and single-mindedly propagate the policies and perceptions of the party.”

5 – XNA director reports to Prop Department of the party. Prop Department responsible to the party Central Committee and has to make sure its policies are reported and widely understood

5 – “The senior staff of Xinhua and of the DWB would therefore meet regularly to discuss the work of the CC, and in particular lay down guidelines for more junior staff as to what should be covered in news reporting and how in general terms it should be presented.”

6 – all staff have to attend regular meetings of political study

6 – “Final reinforcement of the party line occurred with the editorial checks on the work of DWB staff. As noted above, news would be normally either be taken from an existing official newspaper or be written from scratch with guidance from senior journalists within the DWB … Occasional errors of syntax in English translation would get through this process, but errors of line almost never did; the DWB carried responsibility for ensuring that China’s policies were understood overseas, and political errors were unacceptable.”

6 – in 1979 DWB reported almost exclusively good news; most westerners wouldn’t even consider many stories to be news. Domestic (Chinese) writing style carried over to overseas stories. Conflicting views of different officials were presented side by side without any interpretation. Members of the public, when quoted, were always saying something good about the party

7 – “… fundamental shifts in policy over the years meant that what was painted white at one stage must be represented as black at another.”

7 – “Theoretical articles based on contributions by senior party officials to PD or Red Flag were reproduced verbatim and usually without comment …”

7 – large groups of people (i.e. delegates to the NPC) described as speaking with one voice

7 – tendency to drop items for political reasons when they were clearly still news

7 – omit mention of developments of which the world was already aware because they were considered to be damaging to China

8 – some staff skilled at recognizing news, others had no idea or training about what should be stressed or reported. Vagueness was common. Depending on PD for reporting of news and facts of an event was common, rather than doing original reporting.

8 – obsolete terms, vague terms, cliché common

9 – in 1979, new emphasis on economics, even though few reporters had any economic expertise. Problem with numbers (translating from Chinese) that end in 000.

9 – staff were hired for English ability, few had journo training or expertise in an area of coverage. Many had no interest in journo work, but were assigned there

10 – in 1979, foreign news outlets did use XNA copy (as determined by XNA Research Section, which monitored this). FEER, SCMP, AFP, Reuters, AP, Time and Newsweek. But no direct contact between news org and its consumers – hard for them to conceptualize how foreigners lived or viewed China

11 – some journos didn’t care whether foreigners understood …. Porter says this is result of centuries old ethnocentric attitudes of Chinese

11 – management ignored genuine talent among younger staff. Also, lack of clear career path within XNA

12 – DWB did not get adequate cooperation from XNA bureaus in SH, GZ, NJ.

13 – editors not used to fast-paced newsgathering … would sometimes mull over stories for days. Deadlines not important

13 – equipment primitive. Only one Xerox for entire DWB. A few word processors started appearing in 1979, though

14 – staff didn’t have access to training, or even books about how to write news stories

John David: “Pioneering Xinhua’s International Journalism Training Center

16 – Success of China Daily in usurping XNA as the main source for news about China probably led XNA to hire Thomson Foundation to set up journo training center in 1984

17 – XNA payroll: 6500 and 100 external bureaus, compared to 1200 for Reuter and 35 foreign bureaus

17 – XNA “titular head” Director General Mu Qing, but effective controller, Guo Chaoren, 45ish ex reporter who spoke Russian but no English

- Guo had liberal attitude, “ridding agency from shackles of Communist ideology”

19-20 – problem with gullibility, unlike young western journos, who are cynical. Author cites fake training presser, featuring Canadian dressed up as US Naval Attaché announcing a nuclear incident near SH. Students believed it, two even went back to the office to report it but were stopped before it could be released and cause an international incident

21 – Training didn’t make a difference for some trainees. Example of XNA reporter sent to Zimbabwe, if he witnessed a tribal killing, would he report it? No, because of friendship between PRC and Zimbabwe and he wouldn’t want to upset that

* 22 – XNA is actually an important source of news in some foreign countries … in Tanzania, Reuter refused to supply news until bill was paid, so local Tanzanian journos depended on XNA briefs for foreign news coverage

23 – Every Saturday was a political meeting which all staff had to attend – relaying the party line on various topics. Three hours long in 1985, but dwindled to 30 minutes or were cancelled by 88

24 – Journos never ask probing questions … they are “receivers of alleged facts, never hunters.”

24 – CD is an exception, founding editor Feng Xiliang realized that foreign audience not so likely to swallow propaganda, and altered coverage accordingly. Lots of low level corruption stories, and in the early 80s he was called to be questioned by the Minister of Information four times per week on imagined transgressions.


Jean Conley and Stephen Tripoli (former copy editors at CD in 86 and 87)

“Changes of line at China Daily: Fluctuating party policy or fluctuating control.”

Analysis of coverage of demonstrations in 1987 and 1989.

35 - Notes “propaganda typhoon” after June 4, 1989 …. CD coverage immediately changed to “victory” of crushing anti-government protests; also CD dropped to four pages for a short time

35 – Change in coverage the result of change in policy, or change in coverage?

36 – 1989 crisis – Propaganda Department in such disarray that no meetings (formerly once every two weeks) were held with CD editors from late April until after June 4

36 – Top Editor Chen Li’s policy during this time: Do less and do it later, in the absence of official guidance

37 Starting in late April, Zhao Ziyang ally Hu Qili told press that they could report on the demonstrations

PD controlled by conservative forces, printed editorials that inflamed the students

38 – Chen Li still cautious in May. Heard from contacts in Prop Department that Zhao Ziyang was losing struggle. Chen Li tended to follow XNA’s lead, which would shelter them later on. Also, as CD aimed at foreigners, not as regarded as severely as domestic press. Most 2nd tier editors below Chen were sympathizers with students, but only one staff was arrested, and for something not related to CD coverage

Kelly Haggart: “Chinese newsrooms in the aftermath of Tiananmen”

40 – Junior XNA staffers stopped work after editors suppressed a report, based on hospital accounts, that soldiers had been given amphetamines prior to clearing out Tiananmen and protesters had been shot with dum dm bullets forbidden by the Geneva convention. Journos demonstrated in the XNA compound, and some even demonstrated outside of senior editors’ apartments

41 – PD protested by highlighting stories from abroad that talked about students being killed by the government (i.e., Korea)

41 – China Daily editor didn’t come to work, and journos on duty, playing it safe, waited to see what XNA English wire would send over. Nothing came over that night or for several days

41-42 – PD journos put under house arrest and forced to write self criticisms. Others were fired or suspended. Editors from the army newspaper replaced the PD editorial board, and editors from provincial papers which had not seen massacres were brought in as well

44 – In the 1980s, it wasn’t old line communists who served as senior editors. The reason: the relatively liberal Hu Yaobang had been head of the CP Organization Department, which is charged with choosing senior editors of the newspapers. He had chosen people of a like mind for the newsrooms. PD changed a lot as a result in the 1980s, more human interest stories and stories about social problems, including investigative reporting.

Also, university requirement changed makeup of newsrooms. Journalism was relatively interesting work for a university grad in the arts, and they did not want to simply parrot the party line

The middle editors supported reformists like Zhao Ziyang and Hu Qili

45 – But Senior editors report directly to the propaganda department … their lives, homes, positions in society dependent upon toeing the party line .

46 – interesting trend: In the 1980s magazines weren’t under as tight a control regimen as the newspapers, and could publish investigative or critical stories. Many did, and these reports were written by moonlighting newspaper journos who wanted to speak their mind or report on things they liked (and earn some extra coin). The Propaganda Department realized that some of these magazines were getting out of control, and started cracking down before 1989. After the massacre, the trend was accelerated – hundreds were shut down.

46 – After massacre, party circulated doc to media orgs, stating that one percent of journos should be punished as an example (not including those directly involved in the demonstrations, these were to be treated as criminals)

46 – “During the crackdown, every journo in BJ had to confess the extend of their involvement in the protests.” Self-examination, criticism, articles and petitions were produced

49 – The party suspected senior XNA leaders of protecting younger journalists, and sent an investigation team several months after the massacre – why had no XNA journo been arrested, despite 6000 journos, half of whom are in BJ?

- Propaganda Dept kept a close eye on XNA, looking for evidence of sabotage – stories with double meanings, etc.

50 – “There is pride among BJ journalists about those few days of press freedom. For one thing, it showed the potential of Chinese journalists. For the first time they were allowed to act like real reporters and they did no worse at covering the story than their more experienced foreign counterparts. …. For almost all city people, no matter what they thought of the students and their hunger strike, that week of relative press freedom brought home to them the importance of more open, more enterprising media. Freedom of the press was no longer a complete abstraction.”

Mark Brayne: “Reporting the news from China: the problem of distance”

54 – Author’s assessment of XNA English wire: “Xinhua is strictly blinkered in its handling of Chinese news. Its task … is to present a sanitized, ideologically acceptable picture of China for consumption mainly by the foreign media in BJ itself.”

54 – “In the years between 1984 and 1987, I found Xinhua’s reporting on domestic affairs inadequate, often inaccurate, and always idiosyncratic. It could in no way be relied on to give a comprehensive or accurate picture of what was happening within China.”

** “In contrast, its foreign coverage, where this did no impinge on direct Chinese interests, was at that time refreshingly unbiased, and was incomparably more readable, informative and comprehensive, than for example, the Soviet news agency TASS at that stage. This was, needless to say, less to do with high editorial investigative standards at Xinhua than a reflection of how the foreign news was put together – generally in the form of a straight lift from Reuters.”

55 – Author doubts that Xinhua was opening up in the 1980s. Notes example of Heilongjiang forest fire coverage in 1987, it wasn’t clear, contained lots of drivel about soldiers going off to battle but no reliable facts. “This, it might be noted, was at a time at which the media were meant to be at their most open and honest. It was never really plain whether Xinhua was guilty of dishonesty or of plain journalistic incompetence.”

- Author also doubts China Daily, even though it was an importance source for foreign correspondents in BJ. “It was superficial and unreliable as the rest.”

* 55 – Xinhua and CD “excelled in endless soft stories about Wild Men or archaeological finds pushing further and further back the beginnings of Chinese civilization. They made cheerful reading … Yet all too often these were the items that were dictating what the outside world read about ‘cuddly, appealing, but odd’ China.”

57 – translators for foreign press who couldn’t speak Chinese were provided by the Diplomatic Service Bureau. Author suspects their “news judgment”

Jasper Becker: “Ideological bias in reporting China”

65 – “It was easy to condemn domestic reporting in China by Chinese journalists as entirely the product of the ideological imperatives of the Communist Party. It was something else to realize that Western reporters were guilty of the same sin, albeit in a more subtle way.”

71 – Independent journo who documented Tibetan environmental holocaust was told by major news agencies that this story couldn’t run because it would jeopardize their Beijing bureau.

72 – “ingrained prejudice of editors at home”. Editors regard China as a quaint, ancient oriental society. Stories that have some funny or touching angle are more appealing.

Roger Smith “Television and Tiananmen”

84 – “Before Tiananmen the political story was sometimes a hard one to sell. Any script containing more than a couple of Chinese names was considered too confusing for viewers. What editors preferred were pictures, which China provides in abundance. Hence the clichéd stories; stockpiles old cabbages each winter in Beijing and the new restaurant serving rats in Guangzhou, rosy-cheeked children bundled up for school and old folks doing Taiqi in the Shanghai dawn.”

84 – Mandarin speaking journos more common in print, owing to TV journos being moved from post to post more frequently. Language barrier means journos can’t get as close to the story, have to depend on translators.

Simon Long “The winds that keep blowing: China and its foreign press corps since June 1989”

94 – author notes that Chinese newsrooms are still populated by the people who were around in the early 1960s

97 – Apparent popularity of BBC and VOA Chinese broadcasts, viewed as more reliable than official Chinese media (from the BBC, 24.5 hours in Mandarin and 5.25 in Cantonese per week, p. 108)

* 99 – “It is my contention that the impression a general reader would take away from following China in the newspapers since 1989 matches in many respects one that the CCP would want to convey, and is false. I would summarize this into five central myths about China promulgated by the BJ authorities: (a) that China is a socialist country, (b) that the CCP is a strong central government, (c) that ‘the third generation of leaders with Jiang Zemin at its core is stable and united; (d) that economic growth is conductive to political stability, and (e) that China never compromises on issues affecting its internal affairs.”

107 – “In every decade since the communist victory in 1949, China has been shaken by an unforeseen political upheaval.”

*** this jives what I have observed for years … that major crises rear their heads every decade or two .... Boxer Rebellion, 1911 revolution, movements and upheavals in the late teens and 20s, 1930s Japanese invasion and Civil War ....

Robin Porter: Appendix one: A day in the life of the Duiwaibu

115 Describes how stories are chosen: at the previous evenings meeting of the senior cadres, XNA decided that coverage should be on explaining the policy of economic readjustment, following the concerns of the party and the lead of the domestic press.

Also, DXP was expected to give important speech that evening, which morning crew at DWB should cover

PD carries text of the speech, which XN English begins translating, other staff work on a related story: Deng meeting with American trade delegation.

Another works on digest of readers letters printed in the PD criticizing privilege among party cadres, which is the subject of a current party campaign

115-116 – work interrupted by call from PRC Foreign Ministry, which says a prominent American leader has died, and Deng XP offers his condolences. XNA English staff drop work to make a write up

116 – “Editor of the Day” is a senior editor from one of the topic sections, on this day, from the Econ beat

116 – principle news check: “The editor is concerned that the story should be accurate and complete in journalistic terms, that any translation from domestic news sources should be correctly done, and that the political line of the story should reflect the party’s will on the matter being reported”

116 – Two stories from Sichuan, one relayed by post, the other gathered over the phone with a talk with local correspondent

117 – morning stories on their way. Editors decide that a Workers Daily editorial explaining economic readjustment will be translated, identified as from that paper, and not elaborated with any comment.

117 – domestic newspaper have picked up story about a trial, and as that provides a lead, XNA decides to carry it on the English wire

117 – From the Political Section, a story about remarks from vice premier suggesting China is claiming extraterritoriality is kept on the back burner. Normally this would play, as the remarks are from a senior leader, but one of the foreign copy editors says that this could cause a stir, and editors decide to play it cautiously.

118-119 – discussion of other stories chosen, and the sources: provincial papers, XNA bureau reports translated into English, XNA DWB reporters going out and reporting on their own cultural stories, something about a solar panel factory, the performance and reception by a visiting Shakespeare troupe (which has an angle, reinforcing the Sino British friendship). Quality varies, some are great, others are rejected as poor quality or not news

119 – story about African military delegation observing Chinese naval exercises.

* 119 – XNA has two journos covering the banquets given for visiting delegations, this group returns in the evening to write up their formulaic “protocol” stories.

1190120 – “In another office, a journalist has been in private conversation with the Minnistry of Defense about an armed clash that occurred some two hours earlier on the border with Vietnam. He sits down to write an urgent piece about the incident, which, after approval by the night editor, he takes immediately up to the office where finished stories are sent out on the wire.”

120 – list of the days stories – note there are 20 in Porter’s list, all domestic, but Lexis Nexis has 63, including many foreign stories about China and not about China. See note from Appendix 2, below

Robin Porter: Appendix two: The pattern of China’s external news

121 – repetition in output of DWB: possible to classify stories according to various sub-types according to the subject matter, and to “determine over time the relative importance attached by the party to the release of different types of “news.”

Porter chooses May 1979 to analyze, a “typical month” which would not be distorted by the intrusion of the NPC or other party conference, and before intrusion of training in western journalistic techniques

XNA Bulletin that month contained 1848 news items **I measured 1856 using Lexis Nexis, but porter says her stories for May 2 were incomplete. 1200 items came from Guojibu, originating overseas, and concerning international events. Remaining 648 items by DWB in BJ, about developments in China.

- 90 principally political in content
- 120 dealt with econ developments
- 67 cultural affairs (according to XNA’s definition)
- 17 – health and medicine
- 16 – sports
- 338 – “protocol” stories, recording comings and goings of delegations

122 – Most significant political stories concerned “current campaigns” – seeking truth from facts, party privilege, discipline among cadres and society, democracy, the effects of the Gang of Four

122 “The past could be and was frequently invoked in support of current objectives: no fewer than thirteen stories were put out to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, while two others recalled the revolutionary careers of Li Dazhao and Xu Deheng”

122 – “Some stories intended to appeal to specific segments of the Chinese population, even though they formed part of the news for external consumption.” Ex: stories directed at PLA, and a speech aimed at young women

others directed at audiences outside of China: three Taiwan stories, inc. news of a Taiwanese defection to China, and 15 stories of progress involving national minorities

123 – economic stories

124 – Cultural section – apparently the sick puppy of the divisions. Included reports on archaeological finds and historical relics

125 – Protocol stories briefly mentioned, then footnotes, then the end of the book.

... And that is what I will use later on, when I begin to write my proposal and eventually my thesis. It takes a little more time than simply reading a book and scribbling a few notes in a notebook, but the long-term value of a precis stored on my computer is significant.

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