Photo: Wang Zihao. © Dou Yiping
By Lu-Hai Liang and Dou Yiping
China’s journalism schools, like those in many countries, are packed full of students preparing to join an industry where the supply of graduates far exceeds the number of positions available.
The press may be perceived as the fourth estate in the West, but some journalism students in China follow a “Marxist view” that includes supporting party principles, criticizing the “bourgeois concept of free speech,” and maintaining correct “guidance of public opinion,” according to an article on the China Media Project’s website.
Textbooks also teach that the media is the government’s mouthpiece.
“I think the Marxist view on journalism is right,” says Wang Zihao, a 22-year-old journalism major at Beijing’s Communications University of China. “Sometimes what the [Western] journalists do is just outrageous. They should have more professional ethics.”
In the final months of 2013, a national directive forced reporters across China to undergo additional ideological education in the “Marxist view” of journalism that required brushing up on Communist Party slogans to pass an exam, according to reports.
Journalism schools are also facing pressure. Some of the students contacted for this article said their school had strongly discouraged them from talking to foreign media.
Despite the politics, many young people — the overwhelming majority of them female — choose to enroll in journalism degrees, and have a real desire to tell their country’s stories in spite of poor employment prospects and parental pressures.
“When I was filling in the application form, my parents hesitated,” says Yumeng Bao, a graduate student at Fudan University’s school of journalism. “They asked me if I was sure and told me to be rational. They suggested I study accounting, finance, or Chinese[-language] teaching because they believed it’d be easier for me to find a job after graduation if I chose one of those majors.”
But many students choose the major because they have a passion for journalism that can withstand the doubts of their families.
“I’ve had a great interest in social issues since I was little. Studying journalism helps me know society better,” says Jimmy Bai, a final-year journalism student at Communications University of China.
According to 2013 government figures, there are over 250,000 journalists with press cards, which are mandatory for professional journalists in China.
Figures on the number of journalism students in the country are not available, but there are over 800 universities with journalism courses, according to research reported by Xinhua in 2012.
Job security and low salaries are common concerns, while for female students there can be the additional issue of sexism.
“In many state-owned media, highly competitive overseas positions are often given to male journalists, given their better physical endurance,” says Xinyan Yu, a female news assistant at a major international broadcaster.
“Sometimes one person has to do things that are supposed to be done by three people. So this is not discrimination against women, it’s just that men are better at working under pressure,” says Mr. Wang.
This is a common sentiment in China, where job ads can include physical as well as gender preferences.
A long-term study of Huazhong University of Science and Technology’s journalism alumni found that female alumni between the age of 41 and 50 said their income was 20% lower on average than that of their male counterparts.
While Chinese journalism courses can cover the history of foreign news, Marxist theory is compulsory for all Chinese university students. The Marxist theory syllabus includes topics such as the development of materialism, the history of capitalism, and socialism. Professors also teach that communism is the lofty social ideal of human beings.
Students who attend journalism classes both in Hong Kong —a semi-autonomous region of China —and abroad say their education overseas tends to be more practical.
“We learn from practice,” says Xiaoran Liu of her time at Columbia’s graduate school of journalism. “In China, from my experience, the textbook is the main source to learn. We learn in an academic way. Students read a lot. We also had assignments to report and write, but not as often as in Columbia.”
Postgraduate courses can be very different from undergraduate, but there does seem to be some frustration with the rigid way in which courses such as journalism are taught in China.
“No matter what is happening in the real world, most of the lecturers simply teach by the book,” says Adam Wu, who graduated in 2013 and now works as a news assistant for a British newspaper. “And even for those who are motivated, they mind their own steps and teaching methods, trying to avoid crossing the line. How can journalism thrive in a country where journalism students were told not to talk about sensitive topics on campus?”
Issues of censorship and political agendas are, perhaps contrary to foreigners’ beliefs, much discussed on campuses and online. But the students’ opinions may not be what foreigners expect:
“CCTV [China’s state broadcaster] might have their own opinions and agendas, but then so do Western media channels like BBC or CNN. They also have behind-the-scenes editorial directives and agendas,” says Jimmy Bai.
Like their foreign peers, many journalism graduates take up jobs in marketing, advertising, and public relations, which are growing industries in China. “Many of my college friends turned to PR jobs to make a better living,” says Xinyan Yu.
“Most [of my students] don’t want to become reporters. About 25% of my class become reporters and they’re the ones who want to,” says Doug Young, an American who teaches finance journalism at Fudan University.
Despite the economic conditions and employment hazards that come with the job, the memories of those in the industry are a formidable source of motivation.
“Growing up, I’ve always enjoyed writing. I used to write about simple stories of life for a local newspaper in high school,” says Xinyan Yu.
“Once, a detained juvenile wrote to me after reading my articles, and we kept sending letters to each other for an entire year. From that point on, I realized that writing makes an impact in people’s lives and it was when I first started to become interested in news.”