Where free speech is a little bit banned

On
The Hanzhong Daily News, journalists’ top priority is to promote the
Chinese leadership. But as long as he doesn’t question communism or
mention prostitution, Tony Murray says he can write about most things

AND SO THE sleeping giant
starts to stir. Welcome to China – governed by communists, populated
almost entirely by capitalists. More than 1.3 billion of them.

Here in Hanzhong, a small city in the South West, the urban
population is 500,000, with another three and a half million in the
outlying suburban and rural areas.

The local paper – The Hanzhong
Daily News – claims a readership of three million. This is according to
the advertising department. Although many things here in China are
different, I think it is safe to assume that advertising sales people
here talk just as much bollocks about readership as their UK
counterparts.

I’ve been here since early March and have been
writing a column for the local paper. For 1,200 words every Wednesday,
I get the princely sum of 100 yen (about six quid). To put it in
context though, 100 yen would buy you 33 litre bottles of beer or
around 50 DVD discs, pirated of course. Copyright is an alien concept
in China.

A lot of the people here seem far less mature than
their counterparts in the UK. Whether it’s a cultural thing or just the
fact that there is less freedom to get life experience here, I’m not
sure.

There are three exceptions to this rule. Mr Wong, the
franchisee who owns the school where I teach (think Chinese Soprano),
Mr Lee and Mr Woo.

Mr Lee is the editor of The Hanzhong Daily
News and Mr Woo is the senior reporter. Despite the fact that neither
of them speak much English, I have got to know them pretty well and we
spend quite a lot of time together, discussing world issues such as
when would it be a good time for China to start bombing Japan and why
all Americans are gits. We do this through one of the Chinese teachers
at the school acting as an intermediary.

Anti-Japanese feeling is
running very high and there have been riots in Shanghai and Beijing,
with Japanese cars and shops being smashed. It is not uncommon to see
signs outside bars that say: “No Japanese”.

The Hanzhong Daily
News, like most – but not all – of the media here is owned by the
Communist Party and much of its content is geared to promoting Good
Things Done By The Party. The local population has twigged this and
there is a degree of cynicism emerging, but there is still an implicit
trust and – almost – love of the leadership that Tony Blair would
raffle Leo to emulate.

When journalists join the newspaper – and
there are 30 of them, some part-time – they are taught four principles
according to Mr Lee: 1. Promote the Leadership 2. Promote Marxism and
Leninism 3. Promote the Socialist Way of Life 4. Do not say anything
against the Communist Party.

Sound a bit harsh? Well I dare say you don’t get much more freedom on the Daily Mail when it comes to toeing the party line.

Although
Mr Lee is the editor, there is a managing editor who is not a
journalist, but a senior party member who reads all the proofs. Not
that he changes much, as there is an understandable degree of
self-censorship by the staff. They know what they can get away with and
what they can’t.

I got censored in one of my early columns when I
was writing about the death of the Pope when I said I thought he was a
bit of a git because his anti-condom policy had been a contributory
factor to the spread of Aids in Africa.

But in truth, you can write about most things here.

Except anti-communist thinking. And prostitution.

Officially,
there is no prostitution in China. This is despite the fact that I walk
past 20 brothels on the way into school. It is a Far East tradition
that such establishments have pink windows and “pink café” is the
common euphemism.

Mr Woo tells me that last year he “investigated” them and just off the main square the going rate is 20 yen (about £1.20).

The
attitude to the Tianammen Square incident is interesting. To many
people here the government acted heroically to save the country from a
bunch of Western-inspired activists. The more enlightened see it as a
protest not against the government, but against certain corrupt
government officials. And, of course, it has now been sorted and
everything is just dandy thank you.

Mr Woo is a bit of an exception. He has put a lid on his career prospects by not joining the Party.

He tells me he would have joined the students. He is possibly the most free-thinking individual I’ve met here.

Mr
Lee is a different animal, much more political and much more measured
in his views. He is a member of the Party and his father is the deputy
mayor. Nepotism rules. I wish I’d known this before we had some of the
conversations we’ve had. We’ve done porn, drugs, sexual practices, you
name it. I might have been a little more circumspect if I knew his dad
was the second most important man in town.

The insularity of China is starting to change.

While
it is startling to teach a class of 17-year-olds who don’t know who the
Pope is (or was), it is equally startling when one of them comes up to
you and expresses his concern about Kylie’s breast cancer.

China is realising that it can play a role on the world stage and maybe replace Russia as the world’s second superpower.

As
for me, it’s probably one of the strangest experiences of my life –
sitting on the floor with 18 eight-year-olds making Christmas cards in
May and asking them: “Does Santa Claus like cheese?” Still it’s better
than working on the Dudley News.

Tony
Murray was editor of the regional marketing titles Adline and The
Marketeer and group managing editor of the Glasgow-based Carnyx Group.
In January 2005 he did a one-month TEFL course and went to work in
China for two years.

For any former colleagues or the merely curious his email address is tonymurray37@hotmail.com

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