Following the Chinese media's intense coverage of the blitzkrieg trial of Gu Kailai, those of us at Sinica want to take this opportunity to look back at the most riveting China story of the year. And while we've covered developments week-by-week and assume you have too, as Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn point out in today's show, there's been very little discussion of how the story itself broke: how and when did Western journalists cut through the Chinese rumor mill?

Answering these questions and representing the fourth estate in our studio today are two excellent journalists who've covered the story from unsubstantiated rumor through to courtroom trial. We're pleased to be joined specifically by Gady Epstein, a long-time China correspondent currently writing for the Economist, as well as Jeremy Page, an experienced China journalist who writes for the Wall Street Journal and made his name as one of the first investigative reporters to crack and confirm the Gu Kailai / Neil Heywood connection back when most coverage of the Wang Lijun affair consisted of myriad and conflicting rumors centered on Bo Xilai and the United States consulate in Chengdu.

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 said on
August 17, 2012
While I am a fan of these Sinica Podcasts, I am sorry to say that this podcast was only relevant to a few hundred people -- either journalists or self-appointed China watchers. Asking "where you were when you heard the news" seems to equate this story to major historical events like 911 or the JKF assassination. A bit of 自作多情 this time around.

Keep up the good work but aim for broader over deeper
 said on
August 20, 2012

The Bo Xilai Rumor Mill: Is There a Method Behind the Wild Speculation?, by Hannah Beech for TIME


Jeremy G: The BBC's Global News Podcast

Kaiser: Why I’m leaving China, China Daily Show

Jeremy P: The Bo Xilai Affair in Central Leadership Politics, by Alice Miller for China Leadership Monitor

Gady: The Demonization of Empress Wu, by Mike Dash for's Past Imperfect blog
 said on
August 21, 2012
It's great to hear journalists of the "traditional media" defend the rigorous process of classical journalism in this day and age -- I'm not being sarcastic here, I'm really filled with strong and constant hatred against the tabloidization of news.

However, I'd like to know why the very same standards are routinely ignored for the reporting of "human rights issues" in China? The vast majority of those news stories are single-sourced, with the sole source being as partisan and agenda-harboring as it can possibly be, and often with no corroborating evidence whatsoever. Basically, any Chinese Democracy or Free Tibet group can claim whatever it wants and gets it on the wire in matter of hours.

I remember very clearly a press conference by the Chinese foreign ministry in the aftermath of the Tibetan riot in 2008, where a reporter of the DPA tried to defend the practice of "we print whatever exile Tibetans say" with "because you guys don't let us go to Tibet and refuse to answer specific question", to which the MFA spokesman responded, "you're like someone saying since he has no money to buy food, he has no choice but to commit robbery". The moronic crisis response information policy of the Chinese government aside, the comparison was spot on.

And if this kind of reporting is substandard, the headlines it comes with are downright corrupt. The text of those story would accurately state, "according to ...", but with rare exceptions, the headline (which is what most people would read right before skipping the content) would simply hide the fact that it's no more than an uncorroborated claim. I'd very much like to see an analysis on how many "China human rights" stories are titled "China did X" instead of "Activist: China did X" or "China did X, says activists", and compare the number with, say, that of stories about domestic or international politics in the West (where this kind of omission would sometimes cost the editor his job). Even if one sees the multiple-sourced reporting as hopelessly outdated in the twitter era, there can't possibly any excuse for the headline-doctoring.

This problem has existed since time eternal. But I've yet to see or here a representative of the Western media address it. The contrast between the standard Mr. Page and Mr. Epstein advocate and what is being practiced day-in day-out by their colleagues on certain categories of China reporting cannot be starker. Someone really should explain.
 said on
August 21, 2012
PS: Several times during this podcast (and occasionally during previous ones -- I'd say it's becoming a trend), there was two or three people talking at the same time, which makes it close to impossible to comprehend what any of them, let alone each of them was saying. Now, we all love the colloquial atmosphere of the discussion, but this "cross-talking" really needs to be fixed.
 said on
August 21, 2012

There are plenty of stories in constant circulation on Boxun and other sites which never get coverage in the mainstream Western press. If you can cite even a single example of any of the journalists hosted on Sinica pulling things unattributed from those places I'd be curious to see it.

"you're like someone saying since he has no money to buy food, he has no choice but to commit robbery".... [and I believe] the comparison was spot on.

Huh? Western journalists weren't allowed into Tibet because they didn't buy tickets like everyone else? I guess the entire non-Chinese media shouldn't have spent its money on booze at Sanlitun or they wouldn't have been locked out of the market for fair and unbiased information you claim exists in what must be the most trollish or self-delusional comment I've ever seen on a Sinica discussion.

 said on
August 22, 2012

I don't know how you manged to interpret that analogy as "foreign journalists lack money to do their job" -- that's really, really weird. To be clear, "money" in the analogy is equivalent to "first hand (or verified) information", and "committing robbery" is equivalent to "publishing whatever allegation we can get our hands on". Just as having no money (even if it's not one's own fault) is never a justification for robbery, having no access to verifiable information (which is mostly not the foreign journalist's fault, but due to what I referred to as "the moronic crisis response information policy of the Chinese government") is never justification for spreading rumors. You get that now?

At no point did I raise any accusation at "any of the journalists hosted on Sinica", so I have no idea what exactly you're "curious" about. As to stories circulating on Boxun and Co., most of them don't even qualify as single-sourced -- they are zero-sourced, to be exact, since usually no source whatsoever is given.
 said on
August 22, 2012

Your buy/steal analogy implies that journalists can easily get unbiased, first-hand information in the same way I can go to the shop and buy a loaf of bread. In a situation where there is no such marketplace of ideas, such as under a government-led campaign to suppress independent reporting, the analogy is first-order nonsense.

And please take your China trolling elsewhere. If you can't source a single complaint about any of the journalists who have appeared on this show, your constant whining about biased mainstream China coverage is juvenile and off-topic.
 said on
August 24, 2012
Now you have repeatedly challenged me to produce evidence for the subject of my complaint, I feel compelled to heed the call and present this recent reporting by Andrew Jabocs of the NYT, who was on Sinica just this month, and whom I then criticized as a believer and a producer of "superficial anti-China shit you read in the main stream Western media":

China: Teenage Tibetan Monk Dies in Protest’s 44th Self-Immolation

This story is pretty much exactly what I was complaining about in my initial comment: It cites no specific source other than the unbelievably vague "exile groups" and "witnesses quoted by the Tibetan government in exile". But worse than that, the headline not only includes no indication that its an unconfirmed one-sided allegation, but the "China:" prefix actually makes the whole thing like an official account of the Chinese government!

BTW: In the analogy, "acquiring quality information" is equivalent to "earning good money" (which is never "easy"), not "spending money in a shop" (which is only easy for those who already have money). Assuming you're not intentionally misconstruing my words, you must be terrible at reading and comprehension.
 said on
August 24, 2012
This is a joke right? You seriously think it is inappropriate for a journalist to talk to Tibetan exile groups about a story involving political protest in Tibet?

You may not like the fact that self-immolating monks are considered newsworthy in the West, but Jacobs is about as balanced as you can expect in this situation. Even though the Chinese government was in lockdown mode, he reported China's official response to previous incidents without even editorializing on the obvious absurdity in their position: if these people are terrorists, why are they killing themselves instead of other people?

 said on
August 26, 2012
Seriously, do you have a reading disability? Where the hell did I say anything in the sense that "it is inappropriate for a journalist to talk to Tibetan exile groups about a story involving political protest in Tibet" or that I don't "like the fact that self-immolating monks are considered newsworthy in the West"? Of course those kinds of story are newsworthy everywhere if (!) reported properly, and I have no objection against any reporter talking to anyone at all. However, I do have strong objection against the following:

1. Not naming your source (without stating a good reason) -- those exile groups, do they have names?

2. Relying on the single (and clearly biased) source -- yes, it's difficult to confirm those stories independently, but that's not a good enough excuse (see robbery analogy above).

3. Not making clear in the headline that the story is a one-sided allegation.

4. Worse yet, making the headline seem like the story is an official Chinese account.

You had nothing to say on any of those points, instead you made up ridiculous strawman arguments about "inappropriate to talk" and "not newsworthy" and outrageously pretended them to be my positions. Unless you manage to stop twisting my words and simply making shit up, this conversation, which has bee a total waste of time so far, is over.
 said on
August 27, 2012
Jacobs names one of his sources directly and explicitly writes "exile groups" in the plural. So he claims to have consulted multiple sources and seems to have gone out of his way to try and present multiple viewpoints.

If you believe he has been "lazy" and is simply relaying a false narrative without adequate checks, the burden is on you at this point to establish a reasonable doubt about the accuracy his reporting. Since this is YOUR chosen example of shoddy reporting and you insist there is disagreement over the facts reported I imagine this should be easy and so will concede without comment if you can point to ANY document published shortly after this incident that meets your own journalistic standards and calls into question the facts reported.

So those are points 1 and 2 demolished. And as far as 3-4 go, you are the only person I know who would confuse this article with a statement of official Chinese policy. Or take the position that using a colon after a country name implies a statement of government policy. Here are the first two examples I can find of this usage in Google News:

Mark Lesson Studied