Reporting in China

The old man with the red armband is easy to overlook when walking for the first time down the narrow, twisting alleyways of a hutong just north of the Forbidden City. The gray walls of the traditional Chinese homes overshadow his small frame, and the noise from shops and teahouses distract from his quiet demeanor.

Each turn, leading deeper into the hutong, brings about a narrower alley, another set of eyes, another red armband signifying a neighborhood watchperson, and more questions about whether or how reporting in China can lead to meaningful answers.

After it opened the earthquake zone in Sichuan to foreign and national journalists last month, the Chinese government is allowing an unusually large volume of information into the press. Reporting on an earthquake may not seem like a huge step toward freedom of the press to Westerners, but for one interpreter in Beijing, this is an important and positive move by the government.

“I do not know when they started to report on things like this,” stated the interpreter. “I am not happy for the event, but I am glad to see the change in the government.” In the past, she would rely on Western friends and news programs for information on politically sensitive issues like Darfur. “Our news didn’t say anything about Darfur," she said. "My parents didn’t even know where Darfur was.”

Jocelyn Ford, an American freelance journalist working in Beijing, explains that while local journalists are still hesitant to tackle politically delicate topics, they are starting to develop a “news sense” and to pursue new issues.

For a reporter trying to get a grasp on the cultural and political intricacies of a nation, the watchful eyes of the old man with the red armband guarding the entrance to the hutong behind the Forbidden City are a reminder that some stories about Chinese society are not yet ready to be reported.