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Date Posted: 20:30 14/09/2005

Hack attack

Chairman Mao, the Supergirls, Sister Hibiscus, and the dumbing-down of journalism

IN THIS cynical global village of a world, there isn't much magic left in journalism, but even if there were, there is no equivalent of the Magic Circle preventing us, on pain of ostracism or death, from revealing some of the little tricks of the trade. Doing so might also explain why Running Dog has been so quiet in recent months.

Neophyte journalists might, for instance, choose to write yet another article about the prevalence of fake DVDs or Rolex watches within China. We might once again describe the country's burgeoning sex industry or the sheer pace of economic growth in the last twenty-five years or so, using - as always - that tired old 'Chairman Mao will be spinning in his grave' motif. To disguise such cliches, we generally try our best to add some local colour, drawing attention to the beauty of the rapeseed fields of Jiangsu, or to the incongruousness of the engines, cement factories and power stations that belch smoke into the otherwise pristine skies of the countryside, thereby drawing further attention to the fact that, erm, industry is taking over from agriculture and that things are certainly very different compared with a certain period of time previously.

We also tend to formulate some hapless piece of journalese relating to a certain farmer or taxi driver or illegal DVD peddler - let's call him Mr. Zhang or Little Yang - who toils in the fields or through the city streets or in a shoddy kiosk 'for little reward', but at least has something piquant, poignant or amusingly pig-headed to say about perfidious Japan or the harshness of rural/urban life or the fact that things might have been hard in the old days but at least you knew where you stood. We hacks can then attach a list of journalistic platitudes relating to education, income disparities, or the unevenness of reform, much of which we have pilfered from our archives.

There was a spate of items in the British national press during the dark post-Cold War days of Russia, quoting taxi driver Yevgeny or widow Olga, plucking turnips from window-boxes to help their families survive the cold and wageless winter and saying, 'Things were hard in the old days of Breszhnev, but at least we could put food on the table.' The hacks would proceed to describe the 'shock treatments' being administered to the national economy, and the outrageous rise of the oligarchs, and the opulent lifestyles of Moscow's nouveaux riches, finishing off with taxi driver Yevgeny or widow Olga saying, 'Things might have been hard in the old days, but at least you knew where you stood.'

Similar items appear, of course, in the coverage of China, interspersed with interviews of impoverished peasants in their Mao suits, remembering the days when life was more secure. Cue discussions of the 'iron rice bowl', and the nominally exalted role of the peasant in the revolutionary hierarchy of Maoist China, followed by the outrageous rise of the country's newly enriched urban elite, the stark increase in the Gini index and the post-mortal intrasarcophagal rotations of a certain revolutionary leader surnamed Mao.

But don't be too harsh on us. Access is often impossible. We rely on the snippets of news that we have managed to obtain on previous occasions and are forced to build on them. We make wild connections between one unrelated thing and another because, well, you know, it's all part of the same thing really, don't you think?

Things are, of course, much easier nowadays. We trawl the Interweb for information and, if we disguise our sources cleverly enough, can usually pass it off as our own (are you listening, South China Morning Post?). The colour - the chats with earthy peasants and the florid descriptions of landscapes - has become even more crucial in a world where every subject has literally been blogged to death by aspiring pundits with far too much time on their hands.

The ideal world for the journalist is, of course, to belong to an exalted class, an elite of literati pretending to tell the masses how it really is, even if they know, themselves, that the work they produce is a hodgepodge of assumptions and suppositions conveniently strung together by the odd convenient quote. It is much easier than it used to be, with Google and whatnot, as the bloggers have discovered, and so, apart from the big-hitting investigative reporters from the heavyweight press, most of us are reduced, even more, to repetitive hackwork.

Bloggers have exposed an illusion. The authority of opinion is no more, and any fool with a passable education and a working modem can now pontificate at large about the subjects at hand, and is often in an equally good position to quote cabbies or cabbage vendors in articles about income inequalities or Chairman Mao or the online media revolution. Furthermore, any fool with a passable education and a working modem believes that his opinions are just as good as anyone else's, and have as much right to belong to the white noise of public opinion.

Where does this leave China? Such developments may have passed by at least three-quarters of a quarter of the world's population, and yet, the era of instant celebrity and sudden obscurity (the egregious Furong Jiejie or Sister Hibiscus springs horrifically to mind), the era of empty acclaim and media clamour, has certainly touched the country. The global world touches the fake DVD sellers. In some way, it touches the countryside, where old modes of existence – like the Mongol or Kazakh herdsmen of northern Xinjiang – have been caged and neutralized and put in front of the telly, where they watch the latest episode of Supergirls and may well even vote for their favourite, for all we bloody well know. But what, Running Dog asks, is going to be left for journalism and for journalists when the whole world is part of the same globalized blob?

'It was hard in the old days,' said Running Dog, plucking the turnips from the window box in his cold two-room apartment, 'but at least you know where you stood.'

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