Tag Archives: Journalism

The People’s Religion

“Buddhism and Daoism are embedded in Chinese traditional culture,” the Rev. Matthew Zhen said after an early morning mass in Latin at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. “But Islam, Christianity and Catholicism have a relatively short history in China. People need time to accept them.”

Although Christianity entered China well over a thousand years ago, the recent destruction of the Sanjiang Church in the eastern city of Wenzhou underscored Father Zhen’s point — more time may be needed. Whether it is primarily a question of time or ideology, however, is debatable.

“The government feels more comfortable with the so-called traditional religions in China — Buddhism, Daoism and folk religion,” said Ian Johnson of The Times’s Beijing bureau, who has reported on religion in China for more than 20 years. “They think those are less threatening than those that have more outer-world links such as Christianity, including Catholicism with ties to the Vatican, or Islam. Overall the government is a little uneasy about the growth of Christianity. It sees it as something that is a little bit out of control.”

In “Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire,” Mr. Johnson explores the current state of religion in China and what conclusions can be drawn from the destruction of the $5.5 million, year-old church in “China’s Jerusalem.”

A Portrait of Luo Changping

Transparency International Integrity Award: Luo Changping from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

This video portrait of Luo Changping, an anti-corruption fighting journalist in China was commissioned by Transparency International to be played at the 2013 awards ceremony in Berlin. Luo along with Angola based journalist Rafael Marques de Morais received the annual award.

I’ve really grown to love this form of video. In my opinion it is the video equivalent of a still portrait where the photographer takes control of the elements from lighting to where the subject is photographed. In the video world, we have room to create sequences that build an environment and an atmosphere around a subject’s voice.

However, if we were to put narration in, I believe the format changes dramatically to become something different.

Working on projects like this is meaningful to me because I supply the creative architecture to let the character speak. And this character should be commended by what he says. Fighting corruption in China is an uphill battle and very few are brave enough to even try.

ABOUT THE INTEGRITY AWARD
Transparency International Integrity Awards recognise the courage and determination of the many individuals and organisations fighting corruption around the world.Winners are a source of inspiration to the anti-corruption movement because their actions echo a common message: that corruption can be challenged.

FROM TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL:
Working in an environment of media censorship, Chinese journalist Luo Changping summoned the courage to expose corruption via his personal blog.

When the respected financial magazine Luo works for was reluctant to print the name of a high-ranking official accused of illegal financial dealings, he bravely decided to publish the full allegations, including the official’s name, himself. His naming of the official, Liu Tienan, eventually led to a government investigation resulting in Liu’s dismissal from the party and removal from public office in 2013.

The road to accountability was not an easy one. After the investigation was announced by Chinese authorities, Luo’s internet account was deleted before he could release further information on the story. But were it not for Luo’s courage and tenacity, the official’s conduct would have continued unchallenged. Luo’s success was a rare victory in the struggle for transparency in China. His actions have demonstrated the important role for investigative journalism and social media in the fight against corruption.

FROM CHINA
The response from the Chinese government to Luo’s award is not a surprising one. Before the award was released the central Propaganda Department told Chinese media outlets (via China Digital Times):

“Regarding Transparency International’s intention to give Caijing Deputy Editor Luo Changping [this year’s] Integrity Award, the media must downplay the story. Do not report or comment on it. (November 2, 2013)”

中宣部:透明国际拟授予财经杂志副主编罗昌平清廉奖,各媒体须淡化处理此事,不报道,不评论。

Transparency International
Get involved – Integrity awards http://buff.ly/I6rqzn

THE MEDIA ON LUO:
NYT: China to Investigate Top Economic Policy Maker
CNN: How Chinese journalist Luo Changping took on a corrupt official
BBC News – How a Chinese journalist took on a top official
China Digital Times: Minitrue: Luo Changping May Win Integrity Award
SCMP: Luo Changping on the state of Chinese media | South China Morning Post

Robbing our subjects or helping our audience?

“In the end, we didn’t reach an agreement. They got violent and took me away from the villager’s home. They hit me in the head, slapped my face and pushed me down the stairs. Then they forced me into the car and kept hitting me … They Forced me to meet their leader. They took me there and pushed me out their car and I saw the office of their leader. I thought I would be safe, but it wasn’t true. I was pushed into the office and I saw him sitting behind the desk. He was just staring at me. Then the thugs poured hot tea on my face and body. He just started at me in silence.”

Getting quotes like these is very difficult in China, especially when it comes to land rights. It’s even more difficult to get people to say it on camera. If a subject says something like this to me, on camera, they are risking even more problems for themselves. But in the video above, you won’t actually hear the subject say this in Chinese; instead, you’ll hear a voice-over in English.

I often wonder who I am truly making videos for. Am I doing it for the subjects in the videos, to give them a voice? Is it for a cause that needs more awareness? Am I doing it for me?

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Land in China: Über Touchy

The New York Times released their second installment of Leaving the Land on Sunday.

Articles in this series look at “how China’s government-driven effort to push the population to towns and cities is reshaping a nation that for millenniums has been defined by its rural life.” There’s a ton of effort going into this ongoing project in China and New York, similar in size to last year’s iECONOMY series or the previous year’s Culture and Control series.

With this installment, the first of three videos I made for the series published. The title “China’s Consuming Billion” plays off of Tom Miller’s book “China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History” and McKinsey Global Institute’s report “Preparing for China’s urban billion.” The video, filmed in Beijing, Shanghai and Shaanxi Province sheds light on a possible by-product of China’s urbanization plan: a consumer culture that could drive and sustain economy.

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Why We Blog

One of my least favorite things to read is an apology for not blogging more. This is not that.

But instead, some thoughts about why we, and specifically I, blog at all.

If it becomes boring feel free to click off onto recent work embedded throughout this post. Its probably more entertaining than my words.

On November 26, 2011, I wrote an entry on this blog titled “To Staff or Freelance, that is the question.” The blog post marked the end of a 1.5-year-long contract with China Daily, a shorter contract in Algeria and three years as a staff member at the Tahoe Daily Tribune. After the 5+ year stint as a staff member at newspapers, I wrote:

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Committed to Truth: Liu Jianfeng

In May of 2012 the Committee to Protect Journalists approached me, asking if I would be interested in making a short film about a Chinese journalist.

Last month, the piece published. It would be my umpteenth video looking at free speech and cencorship in China. Although it only took two days to film, there was about 10 months of planning involved. Thats mostly because, no one wanted to be featured.

I emailed many dozens of Chinese journalists for months and was having zero luck. They were interested in being featured until they found out the topic was human rights and free speech. As soon as they heard these words, most would immediately stop answering emails. Sadly, I think these people are better examples of what the average journalist in China. They are part of the system, and not willing to shake it … or in this case, come close to the shaker.

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Citizen Zhu: Dissident or Comrade?

Citizen Zhu from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

Since recently appointed President of China Xi Jinping has taken his place at the top of the communist party, China watchers have been swimming in content featuring the word “reform.”

Lately, this word has manifested itself in the topic of constitutionalism. Many intellectuals and liberal thinkers in China think that this might be the way forward. On the 30th anniversary of China’s constitution, Xi is reported as having said “The Constitution should be the legal weapon for people to defend their own rights.”

Some people are surprised at the fact that China even has a Constitution. What does a document like this mean in an authoritarian state? Following the cultural revolution when the document was created it guaranteed “full powers of representative legislature, the right to ownership of private property, and freedoms of speech, press and assembly.”

However, most people know that these things are far off in China. I’ve met countless people whose land has been taken, journalists whose speech has been suppressed and of course we all know what can happen if people assemble in this country.

This week I spent a day with a citizen journalist Zhu Reifeng. Zhu runs an anti-corruption web site called The People’s Supervision. The Wiki-Leaks style site has exposed corrupt politicians all around the country, many of whom have lost their jobs over Zhu’s reporting.

In my report I follow Zhu as he files for divorce and talks to other journalists. My video was created for a general audience, and is available at the New York Times or at my Vimeo account above. However, for China folks interested in free speech I wanted to share a few more bites/

The video briefly mentions police banging on Zhu’s door earlier this week. This visit was prompted by a sex tape Zhu released on line. This tape, was actually suppressed and held hidden by Bo Xilai’s cabinet for years. The party seems to have been ok with Zhu releasing this video, as it may help further to burry the reputation of the disgraced politician Bo Xilai even further. However, when Zhu said publicly he has six more sex tapes involving Chongqing officials, it didn’t take long until the police came to his door. Here is Zhu’s full description of the events that transpired that night:

A Dissident’s Rant: Extended Excerpts from Zhu Ruifeng Interview from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

Now, you might wonder why this is a big deal. Cops come to lots of doors, right?

Well, in China this could lead to a dark world. In 2009 Zhu refused a bribe from a corrupt politician who he exposed as having shady business dealings with mine owners. After leaving the, Zhu encountered uniformed and plane clothes policemen again. Here’s how he describes that situation:

So maybe Zhu would have been taken to the police station. Maybe he would have been taking to one of China’s infamous black jails. We don’t know, but I don’t blame him for not opening the door.

Over instant noodles in Zhu’s office we chatted. To me he appeared to be a warrior of free speech and anti-corruption. In my video, he sites China’s constitution and says he is following Xi Jinping’s words. However, during the 48 hour period it took for me to shoot, edit and publish this video Zhu made a swift reversal of some of his ideals he seemed so passionate about. Within this period, he decided he would not release the other videos.

So the question becomes, what happened? Who was involved in those other six video tapes? Times’ reporter Andrew Jacobs covers this in his report “Chinese Blogger Thrives as Muckraker.” However, on a more sad note we see yet another example of the facade of this document and the politicians’ claims to uphold it. If this document held any true weight, would Zhu have backed off? You can’t blame him though. I wouldn’t want to spend time in a black jail here either.

The Chinese political and media environment seem so connected at times that all it takes is just one toe over the ephemeral line of acceptance, to scare even the bravest of China’s journalists away.

The Southern Weekend Protest: In Photos

Xiao Qinshan, a freedom of speech advocate from Shenzhen screams from his wheelchair in front of the Nanfang Media Group compound in Guangzhou, China, Tuesday, January 8, 2013.

NOTE FROM JONAH: Going to take a break from the Madagascar series and come back to China for a moment.


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China followers will have seen the political uprising in Guangzhou this last week. I spent two days outside of the Nanfang Media Group shooting stills and video for the New York Times. I won’t spend time here saying anything, because other people have said it already, in a way far more intelligent than I can put in words.

I can however, offer a post-fact extended view into the scene. Here’s a larger edit from this week’s events down South. If you’re confused and looking for information on what went on and its significance, check out James Fallows’ blog that gives a quick rundown navigation of the scenario.

Here is the free speech protest, from my camera:

A group supporting the Communist Party of China confronts free speech activists. Fights amongst the politically polar idealogical groups continued on through Tuesday afternoon.


A freedom of speech advocate shows an anti-reformer his identification card saying “he stands behind his words.” Anti-reformers refused to share their identities at Tuesday’s protest outside the Nanfang Media Group compound in Guangzhou.

Censorship Incites Protests in China from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

Police hold back a demonstrator in Guangzhou, Tuesday.
Police hold back a demonstrator in Guangzhou, Tuesday.
Police hold back a free speech advocate in Guangzhou, Tuesday.
Free speech and anti reformers clash in front of the Nanfang Media Group compound Tuesday.
A free speech advocate wears a mask from the movie V for Vendetta. The activist said he ordered the mask recently after he saw the movie on Chinese state run television.
Police officers and state media film reporters and advocates.
Supporters of the Communist Party of China march outside of the Southern Weekend offices with pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong.
Supporters of the Communist Party of China march outside of the Southern Weekend offices with pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong.
Supporters of the Communist Party of China march outside of the Southern Weekend offices with pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong.
Free speech advocates wear masks outside of Southern Weekend Tuesday afternoon.
A man rips up a freedom of speech sign outside of Nanfang Media Group, Tuesday.
Free speech advocates and communist party supporters clash in front of the Nanfang Media Group compound, Tuesday.
A tres chic protestor, outside the newspaper.
A group supporting the Communist Party of China hangs demonstration signs outside of the Nanfang Media Group compound. Clashes between protectors continued into Wednesday afternoon, although rumors of a deal had broke from within the newspaper.
Free speech advocates and communist party supporters clash in front of the Nanfang Media Group compound, Wednesday.
A group supporting the Communist Party of China hangs demonstration signs outside of the Nanfang Media Group compound. Clashes between protectors continued into Wednesday afternoon, although rumors of a deal had broke from within the newspaper.
Police try to contain a free speech advocate outside of the Nanfang Media Group, Wednesday.
A group supporting the Communist Party of China hangs demonstration signs outside of the Nanfang Media Group compound. Clashes between protectors continued into Wednesday afternoon, although rumors of a deal had broke from within the newspaper.
A group supporting the Communist Party of China waves flags outside of the Nanfang Media Group compound. Clashes between protectors continued into Wednesday afternoon, although rumors of a deal had broke from within the newspaper.

Inside the Story

Inside the Story Cover


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I recently participated in a group project called Inside the Story. Multimedia storytellers from around the world were asked to give their two cents, on how to tell a good story, using only 200 words. The excerpts were put together into an e-book you can find here.

The project was put together by Adam Westbrook, a freelance multimedia producer, blogger & lecturer based in London. Adam calls the book “A masterclass in digital storytelling from the people who do it best.”

Given the list of contributors, I am honored to be included amongst so many excellent journalists and storytellers from around the world.

Home Page

The book and the associated web site also included some of my still photography, including the cover of the book (taken from the Friendship Highway in Tibet into Nepal), the home page image (taken on Tioman Island, Malaysia), as well as a couple images inside.

The book contains some really great thoughts and would be valuable to experienced and novice multimedia storytellers. Beyond being priced extremely reasonably ($5.00), ALL OF THE PROFITS of the book benefit Kiva.

Every penny made from selling this book will be donated to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity. Founded in 2005, Kiva works a bit like Kickstarter or Emphas.is, effectively crowdfunding loans to be given to people who want to start their own businesses in places like South America, Africa and Asia. As well as using microfinancing and crowdfunding in a unique way, Kiva is great because it empowers people to start their own businesses, and create their own wealth and security. No handouts or aid involved. Since 2005 more than 736,000 lenders, each lending around $25 each have given $295million in loans to 750,000 people in 61 different countries. Remarkably, 98.9% of lenders have got their investment back as well.

BUT — There is one kicker to this opportunity — the book is only on sale till May 24th. This means you only have a few days to grab a copy and support Kiva. From Adam:

SO WHAT WILL YOU GET FOR YOUR HARD EARNED CASH?

  • A high quality, 45 page ebook, to download and keep.
  • Personal, unique advice on the craft of storytelling from a hand selected group of the best producers around the world.
  • Concise, practical advice, beautifully laid out.
  • A ‘storyteller’s library’ of book recommendations to take your skills even further.
  • Access to films produced by the contributors, so you can see high quality storytelling in action.
  • A warm feeling inside, knowing your money will help entrepreneurs in the developing world start businesses and improve their quality of life.

HOW MUCH IS IT GOING TO COST YOU?

  • The advice in the book is invaluable, and not like anything you’ll find in the usual books about journalism, design, photography and film making. But we want it to be available to as many people as possible to raise the standards of storytelling.

    Learn more about Adam Westbrook here.

    Learn more about Inside the Story here.

    And grab a copy and help Kiva here.

    How to Control the Culture of 1.4 Billion People

    A Date with the Censors from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.


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    Is it possible to control the culture of 1.4 billion individuals? The Chinese government is trying.

    If you’ve been following my work with the New York Times this year, you may have noticed a theme in some of the coverage: censorship. However, behind the censors a greater story is being told. I’m currently working on my fourth video in a series called “Culture and control.” The Times’ explains:

    “Articles in this series are exploring the struggle to shape the culture of authoritarian China.”

    This has been a very interesting series to be part of — on a cultural level and on a production level. Each article has posed new challenges in storytelling and as the collection builds I hope we have helped shed light on a complicated situation.

    There are two parts to this story. One might be looked at as external, while the other is more internal. The external part of the story is about China’s cultural exports. What art, culture and media do people outside the Middle Kingdom see and how do they reflect upon China via that cultural product? The other part is internal: How does the art created in China, shape China’s internal population’s culture? Or more bluntly: How is TV, literature, movies, art and other forms of communication working to shape modern Chinese society?

    In many ways, I might describe this complicated situation as a bit of a tug-a-war. On one hand, China wants its cultural products to be exported all over the world. On the other hand, they want to make sure the right products are exported. Therefore, they are trying to control culture from within China and hope that it will both influence its own population positively and be exported to the global stage. But if you ask most artists — controlled creativity is suffocating.

    In a speech last October in Beijing, President Hu Jintao said:

    “The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence is not commensurate with China’s international status … The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak.”

    Hu notes on the global stage China’s cultural industries are lagging behind its powerful economic and political influence. In response to this, there is actually significant funding going to the arts in China from the government. However, in trying to shape this culture the Communist Party is taking great measures to help steer artists and culturati into what they consider, a moral and ethical direction.

    Word Crimes from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

    Reporting on something like this is a bit complicated and thus far, the stories have focused on specific cultural industries examining what the government is doing in those specific areas as a means of control. In each area, we have found one person to help tell a greater story — a documentarian, a writer and a TV executive representing film, writing and television. In an earlier article in the series, Ian Johnson shows how the government is even shaping perception of history at its national museums.

    The stories collectively help create a bigger behind-the-wall picture that people in the west and in China might not see. A word taken out of a book, a materialistic tendency squashed from a TV show or even a movie being completely unreleased in China — the censors’ hands and eyes are all over the place beyond the widely publicized and infamous Great Firewall.

    Given the enormous population, a lot of people have asked me — Is it even possible to control China’s culture? Last year, in an essay China’s beloved blogger/race car driver Han Han wrote:

    “The restriction on cultural activities makes it impossible for China to influence literature and cinema on a global basis or for us culturati to raise our heads up proud.”

    And this is where the tug-a-war occurs. In the government’s view — culture needs to be of global significance and also controlled for substance for internal and external purposes. But from the point of view of the artists, restrictions on substance make it very hard to create something that, In Han Han’s words, artists can be proud of on a global basis.

    Filming China’s Dark Side 拍中国的黑暗 面 from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

    The influence of art and media on society can be of enormous magnitude. I believe the extreme measures the government is taking in China, demonstrate it is clearly possible to control and shape the culture of 1.4 billion people. Regardless of modern communication and a strong counter culture developing, the masses are still largely at the will of the censors.

    As China’s global influence grows, measurements like this will start to have a larger global effect and I believe keeping an eye on it as it develops is an important step to understanding China’s future.

    – These videos were all co-produced with Times’ reporter Edward Wong. They go with fantastic articles by Ed and Ian Johnson and photo essays from photographers Gilles Sabrie and Chi Yin Sim and portraits from Shiho Fukada. You can see the entire collection on a recently built landing page on the Times’ site here.