Ryerson journalism prof navigates censorship while teaching in China

Staff Reporter

Journalism professor Anne McNeilly and students at Jinan University.
Journalism professor Anne McNeilly and students at Jinan University. Photo: Anne McNeilly

Ryerson professor Anne McNeilly wasn’t sure what to expect when she travelled to China last spring to teach media ethics and news reporting to first and second-year journalism students. Teaching as a “foreign expert” for two and a half months at one of the oldest universities in the country – Jinan University in Guangzhou – she knew she would have to navigate a very different media environment than the one she was used to.

“There are so many ethical situations in media involving freedom of expression and speaking truth to power,” she said, “that it was a challenge knowing how to proceed in a country where it can be dangerous to speak out.”

One example: In late 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers went missing, all of them linked to a publisher and bookstore that sold books critical of the country’s Communist government. In late February, when McNeilly arrived, a TV report said that four of the five disappeared men had been arrested for selling “unauthorized” books and evading customs.

China is eighth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of “10 Most Censored Countries.” While China’s constitution affords citizens and the press freedom of speech, it also allows authorities to crack down on media that they claim exposes state secrets and endangers the country. And because the definitions of “state secrets” and what could “endanger the country” remain vague, censorship at the discretion of the government is not uncommon. More than a dozen government bodies review and enforce laws related to the flow of information.

Jinan University's library and courtyard. Photo: Anne McNeilly
Jinan University’s library and courtyard. Photo: Anne McNeilly

McNeilly saw the government’s ability to inhibit the flow of information first-hand when the Panama Papers story, an international investigative story about offshore tax havens, was published in early March. It implicated senior Chinese government officials, among others, in hiding wealth offshore. McNeilly said that within three hours of publication, the Chinese government had eradicated all mention of the story from Weibo, the social media tool used in China. Even the virtual private networks (VPNs) that she and many students used to access gmail, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google were unable to break through the country’s “great firewall.”

“That was really different and so contrary to what would happen here [in Canada],” she said. “I’ve never taken freedom of expression for granted, but we’re so fortunate to have it and we need to defend it, no matter what.”

Despite the difference in media climate, McNeilly shared her own experiences teaching and reporting in Canada with her Chinese students because the Jinan University journalism program, according to the school’s brochures, aims to prepare students to work internationally,

“I decided to talk about situations here [in Canada] and approaches that are familiar to Canadian journalists, and then we would talk about China and how those situations might be handled,” she said. “But I’d always emphasize the importance of ensuring that they remain safe.”

While Canada and China have different media landscapes politically, she found that journalists in both countries often face comparable human dilemmas.

“I gave [the students] situations to discuss that I give Canadian students since so many ethical situations are basically human situations,” McNeilly said. “People who are interested in journalism often have a sense of justice and are interested in what’s right or fair. I didn’t find that there were significant differences between my Chinese students and Canadian students in that respect.”

Anne McNeilly teaches a class at Jinan University in China.
McNeilly teaches a class at Jinan University in China. Photo: Anne McNeilly

In one exercise, McNeilly asked the students to interview a working journalist about a difficult ethical situation he or she had encountered while on the job. One reporter wrestled with whether to reveal the name of an AIDS patient while another reporter was celebrated for revealing a stock market scandal. “The most important thing when you work as a journalist is to have a nose for news and be hard-working,” the Chinese journalist told McNeilly’s student.

Another student detailed a local newspaper reporter’s undercover work. The reporter joined an agency that hired out individuals to families to sit China’s Grade 12 exam so students could get higher grades. This was unfair and illegal, as the exam is a prerequisite for entrance into all higher education institutions in the country. Once it was published, the story was widely celebrated for exposing cheating.

As part of her research on Canadian students’ English grammar skills, McNeilly also gave the Chinese students, who speak English as a second language, the same English grammar test that Ryerson journalism students must pass during their first year. Although the first language of most students was Cantonese, all spoke English and their journalism courses were in English. McNeilly said the most common request she received was to speak more slowly. “I kept forgetting,” she said.

While the Chinese students’ results are still being calculated, McNeilly said that, anecdotally, she did not have to spend as much time teaching English language mechanics to them as she does with her Canadian students.

She said strong English language skills will be an advantage for those who want to work abroad, but she added that some want to remain in China because they want to make a difference there. She cited, for example, a student who wrote a moving personal assignment about how an earthquake had struck his hometown. He’d been instrumental in volunteering after the disaster, but wanted to be able to do more.

“He realized that he wanted to help by getting information out,” McNeilly said. “He thought he could do a better job of communicating information…he wanted to help people by getting information [about what was happening] out.”