While censorship in China and news practitioners' gripping anecdotes of defiance routinely make international headlines, little is known about the people who are behind the many institutions across the country that train future journalists.
The appointment in July of Lin Zhibo as dean of journalism school at Lanzhou University in northwest China, however, has touched off an unusual online squabble pitting the country's leftist nationalists against liberals pressing for more media freedom. And for the first time, a social media buzz has been generated around the steersman of a journalism school, a role that was previously spared much scrutiny.
Lin was trained as a historian and worked as an editor at an obscure magazine before joining the People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece newspaper. He was responsible for the scriptwriting of a number of TV series devoted to China's civil war when the Communist Party was battling for power.
The controversy surrounding the 51-year-old Lin, who has a massive social media following, had emerged prior to his new job posting. As an editor at the People's Daily, he lambasted what he called bashers of Mao Zedong for exaggerating death tolls from China's Great Famine between 1960 and 1962, during which millions died. The legacy of Mao is controversial in China, although he is considered a founding father of the People's Republic.
“In order to demonise Chairman Mao, someone claimed that tens of millions of people were starved to death during 1960-1962. Some people visited many villages in Henan which were at the center of the famine, and the situation they observed was not like what others had claimed. Many villagers had heard about the death due to starvation but had never witnessed it themselves, and those who could prove the death due to starvation were in the few,” he wrote on Chinese Twitter-like service Sina Weibo in 2012.
Bowing to public pressure and outrage, Lin later apologised and admitted that his comment was inappropriate and had “hurt many people's feelings”. “I have not had sufficient study of the Great Famine and did not have enough information about it…My inappropriate comment has awakened miserable memories for many Chinese…I feel deeply sorry and apologise sincerely to every one!”
Two years later, however, instead of making concessions, Lin appears to be combative in defending his new role . “I will no longer interact with those attackers and will wholeheartedly fulfill my duties [as an editor] and [as dean of the journalism school] at Lanzhou University. I will serve my country and people and assist the university in training professional news practitioners with social responsibility who love their country and people,” Lin wrote on Weibo after criticism poured in.
The loudest criticism came from Cao Lin, a journalist at China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League. His mocking of Lin resulted in a bitter standoff on Sina Weibo, with the two engrossed in a war of words that attracted many reposts and comments.
“I still insist on my viewpoints, journalism is a good major, and there is no reason not to apply. But I want to add that one needs to look at resumes of professors and dean before applying. Extra caution is needed if one applies to journalism school at Lanzhou University, where such a leftist and weirdo like Lin Zhibo serves as the dean,” Cao wrote on Weibo.
Cao took a step further and called the newly appointed dean “an academically impotent hooligan with really bad past records”. In response, Lin retorted, ”Let the law in the country educate an underbred person like you.”
A tighter grip on Chinese journalism
As the intensive bickering was brewing on China's blogsphere over what qualifications are needed for a position such as Lin's, people were also trying to gauge where journalism is headed in the country after Chinese authorities have tightened the clamp on domestic media.
The announcement of Lin's posting coincides with a new measure introduced to prohibit Chinese journalists from writing for foreign media. Last year, all Chinese journalists were required for the first time to attend an intensive training session designed to boost their journalistic skills and pass a test on their knowledge of dry Communist slogans.
An unconfirmed report emerged online last year revealed that regulators in China were hoping to place provincial propaganda officials into the top positions of key journalism schools in the country. Two of the top journalism schools in Beijing, Renmin University of China and Tsinghua University, are headed by officials from the press regulatory agencies.
Lian Peng, a columnist, criticised Lin's appointment:
How come someone like Lin Zhibo would be appointed dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at Lanzhou University? I don’t know what’s gotten into some people.
Another user wrote in support of Lin, arguing that journalism is meant to protect the country's socialism:
Cao Lin from the China Youth Daily said Lin Zhibo is not qualified to be the dean of journalism school at Lanzhou University, what are the qualifications after all? The first qualification is to safeguard socialism and a willingness to serve people. Those who try to undermine socialism should be kicked out of the propaganda agencies.
An associate professor of politics commented about the apparent contradictions in Lin's beliefs, pointing out his support for the Chongqing model — the model of development supported by disgraced former Party leader Bo Xilai in which the government plays a strong role in the economy and social equality:
If Lin Zhibo still insists his interpretations of the Chongqing model, Cultural Revolution and the Great Famine, it would be indeed inappropriate because praising the Chongqing model and upholding the Cultural Revolution and denying the Great Famine is not only politically wrong but also shows that he is hitting the bottom limits of a human being. How could he be qualified to be a teacher?
Parker- W, a journalism student, was confused:
As a journalism major…I really don’t know what to day..Sigh, I applied to study journalism with a lot of enthusiasm, but I feel the discipline is such a mess
Editor-in-chief of the nationalistic Global Times Hu Xijin chimed in to support Lin and condemn Can's actions:
First, I don't agree to some online comments made by Lin Zhibo, I think he needs to be more careful with his words. Second, I object to the concept that Lin Zhibo's political leaning makes him unsuitable to be the dean of a journalism school and individuals like Fan Yijin and Hushuli make excellent deans. This concept should in particular rejected by the education authorities. Third, Can Lin's behaviour should not be encouraged, he had attacked his peers viciously.
Keli Situofu Jin drew a comparison between Lin and the leaders of the Cultural Revolution, a deadly decade-long campaign led by Mao to weed out people, beliefs and traditions that went against communism:
林治波以极左面目出现，与缺乏教养只知叫骂的爱国贼为伍， 频以文革论调攻击持不同意见的公共知识分子和良知百姓， 有辱新闻价值伦理和新闻人的修养， 从人民日报空降兰大新闻学院院长，带给兰大沉重负面包袱， 极左头目在秉持客观立场的新闻界应该被重用吗？
The battle between Cao and Lin, and that between China Daily and People’s Daily. Cao represents the bright side and Lin represents the dark side. Lin is a extreme leftist who lacks education and only knows how to befriend nationalists who shout curses every day. They attack those public intellectuals and kind common people with different views using a tone similar to that found in the Cultural Revolution, which is really insulting to news professionals. From the People's Daily to the dean of journalism school at Lanzhou University, he has brought a heavy burden to the university. Why should a leftist like him be valued in the news circle where objectivity matters?
China's tech-savvy citizenry is finding ways to circumvent censorship and staying more informed via the country's social media channels. A tightened control over media is likely to be met with a stronger demand for quality journalism.