In 2013 Ye Haiyan, a prominent activist for women’s rights in China, caught wind of a scandal that had developed in Hainan: a headmaster had reportedly taken six students aged 12-13 to a hotel room and raped them. Ye took to the internet to raise awareness of this horror: posting a picture of herself holding a sign reading “Headmaster, find me if you want to get a room, leave the children alone”, and posting the number for a women’s helpline. Within a week, hundreds of netizens forwarded her picture, spreading the news.
Then Ye began running into trouble herself. She said a group of about 10 people broke into her house and beat her up. Later she was arrested and detained for 13 days for allegedly assaulting one of those intruders, the Guardian reported.
A decade before Ye’s Hainan exposé, journalists with the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team fared much better for their work in reporting on a story of institutional sexual abuse. At the time, their journalism won the Globe the Pulitzer Prize, and just last month, a biopic of their efforts to uncover the scandal won the Oscar for Best Picture – thanks to gritty performances by stars like Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton.
The Oscar for Spotlight and the story it tells has also prompted some introspection in Chinese media circles.
An article in ThePaper.cn draws an unfavourable comparison: “Compared to the ‘copy and paste’ generation today, the Spotlight investigative group had much more of the media spirit of seeking facts and truth.” It ends the article with this thought: “When a thick fog obscures the truth, be prudent, prudent, and prudent again; dig, dig, and then dig some more: this is what ought to define a person in the media; what you can do, you ought to do well”.
It seems like an admirable creed, and even to advocate more investigative journalism. But the emphasis on being “prudent” is perhaps as foreboding as it is encouraging.
That’s because the questions raised by Spotlight seem all the more pertinent following President Xi Jinping’s recent proclamation that the media should serve the Party first and foremost. That decree led David Bandursky of the University of Hong Kong to tell the Guardian that morale in China’s media has never been so low: “It is all the Ds: despair, depression, despondency.”
Indeed, the recent dismissal of an editor for a thinly-veiled protest over the Party’s efforts to curtail journalistic independence (see WiC315) made headlines only days after the Spotlight cast lifted their Oscar.
(Some may also find it ironic that a film about American investigative journalism should be financed by a Chinese firm: the Financial Times reports that Spotlight was produced by Open Road, a subsidiary of AMC Entertainment, which Dalian Wanda owns. Wanda, controlled by one of China’s most politically-connected tycoons, Wang Jianlin, subsequently released a statement that the Oscar win “marks the highest accolade ever received by a Chinese company in the global film arena”.)
Chinese media gave Spotlight favourable reviews. The Beijing News praised not only the real-life journalists’ pursuit of the truth, but also the film’s realistic style, commenting that there was no undue drama or plot added to the story. This was contrasted with the presentation of journalists in the 2012 Chinese film Caught in the Web: China’s official submission to the 85th Academy Awards.
One critic told Beijing News that Caught in the Web’s portrayal of TV journalists presented a “textbook negative image” common in many Chinese films about journalism. Ultimately, the article argued, Chinese dramas about journalism don’t have the patience of Spotlight to truly develop a story. Instead they sensationalise and simplify the characters, making them appealing at a superficial level.
Then again, many of its readers will not get to see Spotlight, which has yet to screen in China. And perhaps it’s not likely to. In the film the journalists’ declared mission is to ‘expose and bring down the system’. That might be a line Beijing’s censors deem unsuitable…
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