Journalism Ethics 101 in China

Anne McNeilly,  Ryerson University


Teaching a news “ethics” course in the fledgling journalism program at Jinan University in Guangzhou, a city of 12 million on the southeast coast of China, proved to be a challenge given the restraints on freedom of expression now occurring under the current regime of President Xi Jinping, who has been described as the “most authoritarian leader since Chairman Mao” (Osnos, 2015). The program, set in the university’s international school, attracts intelligent and motivated English-speaking native and foreign students from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao. The problem was how to discuss various aspects of the journalist’s role in “speaking truth to power” in a country where such freedom is not only increasingly limited, but potentially hazardous to liberty.


Anne McNeilly ( is an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson University, 350 Victoria St., Toronto, Ont. M5B 2K3. She spent 10 weeks in spring 2016 teaching media ethics and news reporting to two classes of aspiring Chinese journalism students who taught her a lot.


I could feel the sweat trickling down my back.  It was only April, but already the heat was oppressive in Guangzhou, China  – a city of 12 million about two hours north of Hong Kong on the coastal mainland. But the heat wasn’t why I was sweating.

My task was to teach media “ethics” for 10 weeks to 40 English-speaking first- and second-year students in Jinan University’s fledgling journalism program. I’d signed on to teach news reporting at one of the country’s oldest universities, and also agreed to teach media “ethics” in a country where the Communist government’s hold on the media is a tight one. (The Committee to Protect Journalists lists 49 reporters in Chinese jails as well as two high-profile human-rights lawyers.) (Beiser, 2015).

But how do you discuss “freedom of expression” and “speaking truth to power,” as well as the nuances and ambiguities associated with each, in a country where such concepts are not always accepted and only rarely discussed in public. “News is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is public relations,” has become a famous definition of journalism often attributed to George Orwell, although there is debate about who actually said it. But the late psychologist Erich Fromm would certainly agree with that description.  Disobedience is “the first step into independence and freedom,” he wrote back in 1963, while acknowledging the destructiveness of some forms of disobedience (Fromm, 1963). Nevertheless, the country’s willingness to invite and so graciously welcome visitors who hold opposing views gives pause and makes it difficult to untangle the inherent contradictions.


I arrived in Guangzhou in February, 2016, shortly after demonstrations in the neighbouring Hong Kong due to Beijing’s crackdown on vendors selling books critical of Beijing political leaders. All five booksellers who had mysteriously gone missing eventually returned to their families after spending time in Chinese custody. But one of those booksellers, who is now living under police protection in a safe house in Hong Kong, said recently that he was asked to report to the mainland on those people who wanted to purchase political books. “I was to be their ears and eyes” (Ng, 2016).

A few weeks later, access to information about the Panama Papers, an international news story that broke in early March, was eradicated from Weibo, the most widely used search engine in China, within three hours of the story’s emergence on the worldwide web. Even those fortunate enough to access Western media through a VPN, virtual private networks that can be slow and erratic, but for a fee, allow you to tunnel into Google, Twitter, Facebook and other forbidden and heavily censored websites, weren’t able to access details of an investigative story that garnered news headlines around the world. It appeared the government was quite capable of shutting the story down, which it did with a vengeance while in session through the early half of March.

“Chinese news groups have been ordered to purge all mention of the Panama Papers from their websites and warned of harsh punishment if they are found to have published material ‘attacking China,’ ” reported Tom Phillips from Beijing, the foreign bureau for Britain’s The Guardian newspaper (Phillips, April 2016).

While many optimists suggest the internet is too large, pervasive and unwieldy to be monitored, the Chinese government seems to be doing just that and doing it effectively (Wei, 2014). When President Xi Jinping first came to power in 2013, people anticipated that China would become more liberal, particularly as his father, Xi Zhongxun, was well known as a liberal economic reformer in former governments.  While invitations to professors like me suggest a willingness to adopt more liberal standards of press freedom, Xi’s current regime also demonstrates a willingness to restrict freedom of expression more than anyone anticipated. He has been described as “the most authoritarian leader since Chairman Mao” (Osnos, 2015).

One of the only papers to carry information about the Panama Papers, a story about wealthy individuals around the world, many in political positions, sheltering income through offshore tax havens, was China’s English-language Global Times, a newspaper widely recognized as a Chinese government mouthpiece. “Hostile Western forces are behind the Panama Papers, a state-run Chinese newspaper alleged Tuesday, as media avoided reporting revelations about Communist leaders and it emerged that the law firm involved has eight offices in [China]” (Dooley, April 2016).

The Global Times described the Panama Papers story as a “planned attack of ideology from America” and pointed out that no Americans were on the list of those who were purportedly sheltering their funds offshore.  (The story, however, failed to note that there are already relatively available offshore investment opportunities widely available in the United States, such that U.S. citizens don’t have to seek out a law firm in Panama to help invest funds.)

Another example of the success of the Chinese government successfully restricting information concerned the winning film from the prestigious and annual Hong Kong film festival, called Decade or Ten Years. The film is about an imaginary Hong Kong society 10 years from now that shows the anger and anxiety of local residents about the takeover of general elections and the democratic system there by the Chinese Communist government. The Global Times justified the censorship of the film and all information related to it by calling the film “a virus of the mind” and the scenarios it describes as “absurd and ridiculous” (Timmons, February, 2016).  Before it was abruptly removed from theatres, it was outperforming the new Star Wars film blockbuster (Timmons, February 2016).

Film night

Although many students have VPNs, unlike most of the country’s general population, every bit of information related to Ten Years was successfully eradicated from social media by Chinese censors. Interestingly, though, students can access and play just about any other Hollywood film you could want, or remember! We spent Monday’s optional movie nights on campus watching old Hollywood journalism films such as: His Girl Friday (1940 with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell); Sweet Smell of Success (1957 with Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster); as well as newer ones such as the Academy-Award winning Spotlight (2015 with Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo); State of Play (a 2003 BBC mini-series with James McAvoy and Kelly MacDonald); and the goofy Anchorman (2004 with Will Ferrell and Christina Applegate).

Many of these films celebrate individual rights, as journalists are often portrayed as fearless crusaders fighting for justice against powerful, authoritarian, and sometimes corrupt, institutions. A character such as city editor Walter Burns in His Girl Friday and/or The Front Page bows to no authority except his own – he is the ultimate rule-breaker and, as a result, justice ultimately prevails. These and other Western films with similar themes are readily available on the web to Chinese citizens with VPNs.

The students’ familiarity with Western values, their keen desire to learn, combined with the often restricted ability to access information on Weibo resulted in a quandary for me on how to proceed with an ethics class that would have been much easier to conduct in a Western setting.  We started by discussing more seemingly straightforward ethical topics such as privacy and grief, mistakes and plagiarism, while I considered the wisest approach.  It was then that I came across a description of Jinan’s international journalism program in the university’s public brochures, which clearly position it as one designed for students wanting careers outside the country.

In fact, the university’s international wall at the base of its imposing library and teaching building is a monument to the multicultural community the university has worked to develop. Each panel lists, alphabetically, the home countries of Jinan University’s international students. Because of the program’s emphasis on preparing students to work in an international environment, I decided to forge ahead with perspectives that clearly reflected those of Western journalists. But I was careful to qualify them by discussing the situation in China and how the priority for students was, and is, to remain safe.

Ask a Journalist

The students seemed to welcome this approach, which worked particularly well in a student exercise I described as “Ask a Journalist,” in which students were required to interview a working Chinese journalist about the most difficult ethical situation the journalist had encountered during his or her career.  The responses that students received indicated that many working Chinese journalists are obviously dismayed by the attitude of the current regime, while others behaved in a way that can only be described as suppressing the information they discovered.

One example: Foot and mouth disease had infiltrated a kindergarten at an elementary school, but the principal didn’t want the parents to know and the reporter’s editor at the local paper shut the story down because he didn’t want to alienate the school, which spent a lot of money on advertising in the paper. Most interesting, though, was my student’s reaction to the journalist who agreed with spiking the story. In a paper describing the incident, the student wrote:

“When the details were told to me (of this story) in a calm voice by a journalist who did nothing to change the circumstance, I was actually shocked and angry. I believe journalists should take responsibility by reporting a problem, but what’s more important is to solve it by relying on the media’s power.  If I were [the journalist], I would do my best to prevent those innocent kids from being harmed by the authorities being so remiss.  It is not the job of the press to show the harmonious scene every day to the public.  We need the truth.”

But a dramatic investigative story that gained a high profile and was lauded by all occurred when Liu Jun, a senior reporter at the Southern Metropolis Daily, the third largest newspaper in Guangdong province, described sending one of his team members to join an illegal organization that, for a price, sends people (imposters) to replace students to help them get higher scores. Achieving a good score on this exam is crucial to getting a position at a university and the pressure on secondary students to do so is extreme. The story, in this case, Jiangxi Province’s College Entrance exam, was published 30 minutes after the exam had started. The Education Examination Authority and the Public Security Bureau took immediate action to confirm the news story and apprehended the reporter on Liu’s team who was (mis)representing himself as a student just 20 minutes before the end of the exam.

“What we did was completely legal and ethical theoretically,” Liu told my student in an interview. “Although even the Public Security Bureau agreed with our investigative method, there are still some people who argue about it.”


So, it is acceptable to expose cheating on the national exam that determines student entrance to university, but it isn’t all right to inform parents that a contagious disease is loose in their local school. The duality involved in censoring some information while circulating other kinds of information also seemed to me to reflect the duality of the country’s willingness to expose students to Western ideas of a free press while censoring information the government deems negative to its image.  The duality involved in this willingness to expose students to Western values combined with its fearlessness in suppressing information also suggests the complexity of the multi-faceted Chinese culture as well as the great English poet William Blake’s insistence that contraries are necessary for progress.  “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence” (Blake, 1790).

By the end of their second year, many of my Chinese students were increasingly aware of the limitations that might be placed on their reporting and were deciding to pursue careers in public relations or marketing rather than journalism, after their degrees were completed.  Others wanted to pursue journalism jobs abroad, which also, ironically, seems to show the effectiveness of the current policies: Journalists self-censor themselves rather than challenge the existing status quo or the current regime.

“People seem to feel worried and confused about the vast and hazy coming life,” one student wrote in his final paper: “Half of my classmates say they want to continue to a graduate degree in public relations, marketing or law. Someone plans to take the civil service examination and find a stable job in the government system. I see their goals are changing and the gap between reality and ideality (sic) is expanding.”

But some students were still committed to journalism careers despite the challenges to free speech. Another student wrote in the final paper: “There have been many great journalists with amazing courage, who reported the darkest part of reality to bring light, and got into the deepest part of humanity to find hope. I want to be one of them, rooting into this land and writing for all of the people who deserve attention and a voice,” wrote one student, who said he loved his country too much to seek a journalism career abroad. “I will seek facts and report them honestly and fairly; I will distinguish among entertainment, reality shows and serious reports; I will try to dance with censorship [italics mine] and with our generation becoming more experienced and professional, we will report independently for public interest and may correct censorship from inside as practitioners  —  or even cancel it.”


Beiser, Elana (2015). China, Egypt imprison record numbers of journalists.  Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). URL:  [December 15, 2015]

Blake, William (1790).  The Argument.  The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  URL:

Dooley, Ben (2016).  ‘Powerful Force’ behind Panama Papers: China Media. Agence France-Presse.   [April 5, 2016]

Fromm, Erich (1963). Disobedience as a Moral and Psychological Imperative. On Disobedience: Why Freedom means saying “no” to power.  HarperPerennial

Ng, Joyce (2014). Hong Kong bookseller claims mainland bookseller told him to report on customers. South China Morning Post. URL:  [August 6, 2016]

Osnos, Evan (2015). Born Red. The New Yorker.  URL:  [April 6, 2015]

Phillips, Tom (2016). All mention of Panama Papers banned from Chinese websites. The Guardian. URL:   [April 5, 2016]

Timmons, Heather (2016). Hong Kong’s popular, lucrative horror movie about Beijing has disappeared from theatres. Quartz. URL: [Februrary, 2016]

Wei, Sisi (2014). Inside the Firewall: Tracking the News That China Blocks Pro Publica. URL:  [December 17, 2014]

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