Neutrality under Global Authoritarianism?


Hi friends,

This is Wilfred Chan, a founding editor of Lausan 流傘, an independent, volunteer-run publication sharing leftist perspectives on Hong Kong. 

Five years ago, when I worked as a news reporter covering the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, the press badge around my neck felt like an amulet of protection. A quick wave of it and police would allow me through their lines, sparing me from arrest. 

During this year’s uprising, that safety can no longer be taken for granted. In early September, a friend of mine, one of Hong Kong’s most tenacious frontline reporters, was pepper-sprayed directly in the face. “I’m OK, mostly,” he told me. “I didn’t swallow any, thank f**k.” The chemical clings to your skin and clothes, he explained; it doesn’t just go away on its own. That was the only reason he eventually stopped live streaming: because he badly needed a shower.

All journalists in Hong Kong — both local and foreign — are being increasingly targeted by state-sanctioned violence. Police have assaulted, arrested and maimed journalists with impunity; other reporters have been harassed or threatened at gunpoint. As I write this, journalists I know are trapped with protesters at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where police have threatened to open fire on those inside with live ammunition. Press who attempted to peacefully leave were handcuffed; some opting to stay have tweeted that they will “report until the very end.”

In the places I have worked — Hong Kong, China and the United States — the freedom of the press is nominally guaranteed by the constitution. Yet all these governments express open hostility toward journalists. If our existence has been politicized, I feel our work must be, too. We may not be building barricades in the streets, but we are waging a similar battle against unchecked power. So my question for this issue’s Rock the Boat is: in our time, as we fight for our lives under global authoritarian advances, is neutrality still possible? If our work is becoming increasingly political, does practicing journalism inherently require political commitments? And should we make those commitments clear in our work?  

Wilfred Chan 

Mark the date: On December 9, we will co-host an intimate sharing session with Inkstone about covering China and the power of storytelling at the China Institute in New York. Please RSVP early to secure your seat!


Best work from our members.

😷 Hong Kong Protests
Elaine Yu 余依諾
joins a team of New York Times journalists to cover the violent siege at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. 

The South China Morning Post’s Xinyan Yu 余心妍 documents a stand-off between Hong Kong and mainland students outside a New York University human rights event.

Jun Mai 麦俊 uncovers the real identities of the basketball jersey-wearing Chinese soldiers who “volunteered” to help clean up Hong Kong’s streets over the weekend in a South China Morning Post story.

Quartz reporter Jane Li 李林晋 explains why and how PornHub has become Beijing’s new outlet to wage a disinformation campaign against the Hong Kong protests.

Photo: Xinyan Yu

🤐Is WeChat A Problem for Democracies?
Quartz producer Isabelle Niu 牛牧歌 travels to Australia and speaks to WeChat users, publishers and experts about how WeChat spreads misinformation worldwide.

👮👮‍♀️ Police Shortage in Iowa

NBC’s Shako Liu produces a short documentary about the staff shortage that plagues rural police and sheriff departments in Iowa. The struggle in Iowa is part of an increasing national trend of police shortages. 

✍🏻A Conversation with Yiyun Li
For a Q&A piece in The Nation, Rosemarie Ho 何晰璿 interviews master of short stories Yiyun Li about Chinese poetry, why Moby Dick is a fantastic novel, her writing process and more.

🧒📚Chinese Kids’ Reading List
Caixin’s Dave Yin 殷大伟 sifts through a new list of book recommendations that China’s Ministry of Education put out for the country’s youth, who are encouraged to learn about quantum computing, drones, artificial intelligence and gene editing, among other STEM subjects.

🏥 Medicare for All?
Few other issues have divided the Democratic presidential primary like Medicare for All. Qinling Li 李沁灵 edits and animates a video for POLITICO on the fight about Medicare for All and the winners and losers each it would create. 

🥡A Nostalgic Taste of Old New York
Long-time Chinatown locals in New York have been eager to check out a tiny restaurant that serves versions of recipes — New York Hakka food invented by Chinese immigrants — from a long-shuttered favorite eatery. Shen Lu 沈璐 tells a story about immigration and transformation for Eater.

🏀 What Left Steve Nash Empty-handed?
SB Nation’s Jiazhen Zhang and his colleagues delve deep into Steve Nash’s career in a visual analysis, where they explain why Nash’s teams never won an NBA championship.

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Thoughts from our members and beyond on topics about the media industry, diversity and more.

In our time, as we fight for our lives under global authoritarian advances, is neutrality still possible? If our work is becoming increasingly political, does practicing journalism inherently require political commitments? And should we make those commitments clear in our work? — Wilfred Chan

Rosemarie Ho 何晰璿, a New York-based freelance writer who occasionally reports on Hong Kong, thinks that when journalists believe they can achieve neutrality through covering “both sides,” this could lead to a tendency to overcorrect themselves, especially when it comes to reporting on power:

When reportage is shaped not to speak truth to power, but to vacate it of all possible political resonance, what comes out is almost always a piece that reaffirms the same status quo that the marginalized are fighting against—the same status quo that journalists seek to report on, not to internalize and reaffirm. The reporting, in other words, loses its context.

This is not to say that objectivity isn’t possible, but that bias is not the same thing as misinformation. When a publication, for example, uncritically uses the Hong Kong government’s characterization of the current protests and calls students and first-aid responders stuck in Polytechnic University “rioters,” that already imputes a version of events sanctioned by the government. It misleads the reader by failing to report on what is actually happening on the ground—students being forced to barricade themselves inside a university for fear of police arrest and subsequent misconduct. To me, the job of a journalist is to reveal what power wants to obscure. You don’t need to be an advocate for the marginalized to be truthful about structural violence and injustice. 

Luna Lin, a tech reporter at KrASIA, thinks it’s a dangerous move to depart from fact-based reporting: 

This is going to be unpopular, but someone has to say it: smuggling your activism or political commitments into your coverage is a betrayal of our profession. It's a disservice to the public who needs factual and unbiased reporting to make informed decisions, and the very act of showing your bias (i.e. willfully ignoring and failing to call out the vandalism, the attack of civilians and the nativist sentiments against mainlanders) casts doubts on your reporting, too.

Diana Chan, a Hong Kong video journalist/documentary filmmaker currently based in New York, doesn’t believe journalism can be neutral or unbiased:

To me, what is more important is that we are fair and transparent in our storytelling. As a journalist, the last thing I would want is for me to become part of the story. Of course, I have my personal views, and those may seep into my work, but I would like to think that when I’m in the field and speaking to sources of all backgrounds, I maintain my professionalism - regardless of my political stance. The truth of what happened - the soul of the story - will naturally reveal itself through the videos I film and the people I interview. As long as we journalists are honest in the way we tell stories, I have no qualms about whatever political implications viewers/readers ascertain from between the lines. 

Yangyang Cheng 程扬扬, a particle physicist and writer, offers her perspective as a scientist:

I recall attending a public lecture by a well-known American political reporter several years ago, when he commented that many of his colleagues, himself included, did not vote in elections they cover, so as to protect their “neutrality.” I respect his personal decision, but a part of me has always questioned the privileges underlining the choice: who could afford to observe an election from a distance, when matters of governance are only academic exercises?

I am a physicist. Science as a human endeavor is inherently political. When people say “science and politics cannot mix,” it is often not about defending scientific truth, but about protecting government funding. When some of my colleagues try to discourage efforts in making the community more inclusive and our research more ethical, an easy argument is that such work is “politicizing science.”

Systems of power like to use words like “balance” to maintain the status quo, and terms like “both sides” to obscure structural injustices. Impartiality is not inherently wrong, but too often it is deployed as a guise for intellectual laziness and moral cowardice. In the face of oppression, the only two positions are complicity and resistance.


We recognize our members’ professional achievements (and flatter them).

📗Muyi Xiao 肖慕漪 last year mentored a young photographer for a New York Times project that celebrates girlhood around the globe. The project, titled This is 18, has been turned into a book

🎙️Yangyang Cheng 程扬扬 will be speaking at SupChina's NEXTChina conference in New York on Thursday, November 21, as the guest for the Sinica podcast live taping. 

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Jobs, gigs, grants, fellowships, etc. 

Kim Wall Fund - [Global]
The International Women’s Media Foundation is accepting applications for the 2020 Kim Wall Memorial Fund. A $5,000 grant will support a female reporter covering subculture, broadly defined, and what Kim liked to call “the undercurrents of rebellion.” Application deadline: December 16. APPLY

DW Correspondent - [Taipei] 
DW's East Asia bureau in Taipei is hiring a reporter to work primarily with its English television department in Berlin. Application deadline: December 1. APPLY

ARD Producer - [Beijing]
German Public TV ARD is looking for a journalist in Beijing to do web videos and to work as a producer for documentaries. Please send applications to:

WSJ. Magazine China Editor - [New York]
The Wall Street Journal seeks a New York-based editor for the WSJ. Magazine China edition. Candidates should have at least 3-4 years of editorial experience in both English and Mandarin. APPLY

👀Find more on the #opportunities channel on Slack.

Writers: Wilfred Chan, Shen Lu; Editor: Shen Lu; Copy Editor: Dan Mejia, Miles Goscha.

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