Dispatch, China 1: A media in flux

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Ken in ChinaTravel Weekly’s Kenneth Kiesnoski is touring China with Uniworld. The trip includes a Yangtze River cruise on Victoria Cruises’ newest ship, the Victoria Jenna. His first dispatch follows.

I woke to a snow-covered Beijing this morning. The Chinese capital has been draped in a bone-chilling damp since I arrived, with temperatures barely nudging out of the 30s.

A New Yorker, I found myself surprised to see snow so "early" in the fall -- even though I’m on the edge of the cold Gobi Desert, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be snowing in early November.

But the change of season, intensified somewhat by the 13-hour time zone shift, is surprising nonetheless. And Beijing is full of surprises, subtle though they may be.

For instance, the city is a study in urban sprawl, its wide avenues lined with hypermodern skyscrapers and older, scruffier socialist tenements set quite a ways back from the street.

This translates into lots of open sky -- smoggy, but open -- and an almost suburban, even North American, feel. (More Dallas or Los Angeles than Tokyo or Seoul, if you will.)

For a city that’s some 3,000 years old and has served as China’s capital since 1264, I expected more of an ancient, crowded, exotic feel. But today’s Beijing is very much of the 21st century. Marco Polo wouldn’t recognize the place.

For all the modernity, some backwardness persists in the midst of technological prowess. I haven’t been able to access Facebook or Twitter via the free WiFi connection in my room at the luxurious Sofitel Wanda Beijing in the central business district.

These social networking websites, along with YouTube, have been blocked by the Chinese government since summer. Strangely enough, MySpace is not blocked.

According to the blogosphere, factors influencing the government’s decision to block some social media sites could be the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June or the deadly rioting between Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang province in July.

No matter the reason, the end result is the same: Family and friends have been temporarily denied the pleasure of seeing me mug for the camera in front of Mao’s portrait at Tiananmen, atop the Great Wall and in the confines of the Forbidden City.

CHINA-KKGreatWallDispatch1What the annoying online censorship hasn’t done is block my access to printed or broadcasted criticism of China. I watch CNN Asia and BBC World in my room, and not a phrase is bleeped out.

The hotel provides copies of the Wall Street Journal’s Asian edition at breakfast, and no pages are blacked out. The copy I perused over dim sum yesterday morning contained two articles that condemned China’s government as being outright tyrannical.

And since it was Nov. 9, the issue contained heavy coverage of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall –- surely not an occasion for popping champagne corks at the Politburo.

Of course, I’m not able to understand the abundant Mandarin-language media available. I’m sure dissemination of downbeat domestic news is much more measured.

Conversely, negative news about the West is freely divulged to Beijing readers and viewers. In the hotel gym, I watched Chinese TV broadcasts showing reports on the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas.

My host at dinner the night of my arrival expressed his shock at recent serial killings by a convicted Cleveland-area sex offender. I was surprised that the story made headlines here.

As a thinking yet proud American abroad, I was left feeling that sometimes no news can be good news -- heretical as that may be for a journalist to venture.

Lest I leave the impression that China is still the old-school, propaganda-saturated Marxist society it once was, I should mention an anecdote.

As my press group walked past the mausoleum of Chairman Mao in the middle of Tiananmen Square, my local Uniworld guide, Kevin (that’s his professional, English-language name) mentioned "Mao: The Unknown Story." The book, a 2005 biography of the Communist leader by Chinese expat Jung Chang, paints Mao as worse than Hitler and Stalin rolled in one.

The book is banned in China, and I got the impression that Kevin thought its stark conclusions were a bit overblown.

CHINA-KKMaoDispatch1But he mentioned it nonetheless, perhaps as a counterpoint to all the Mao hagiography on display all around us. There were teams of Mao wristwatch vendors and purveyors of the leader’s "Little Red Book."

One of the other journalists in our group asked what would happen if one brought a copy of the banned book into China.

"Nothing, no problem," said Kevin, shrugging. "It’s fine. They just can’t sell it in the bookstores here."

It seems that China, the "Middle Kingdom," is tentatively striking a middle path in media as it is in economics, the arts and foreign policy. Time will tell.

In the meantime, the sun suddenly came out later today, just in time for my first walk up the Great Wall.

I was worried my views of the ancient battlement would be obscured in a steady, sleety maelstrom. Instead, I was treated to crystal-clear views of a gorgeous, snow-laden wall, foliage and peaks.

As I struggled up the inspiring structure’s drift-covered steps and slopes, I grew grateful -- tricky web restrictions aside -- that China has opened up to the world as much as it already has. I suspect more is yet to come.

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