Extended Interview: Magazine Editor Hung Huang

May 30, 2008 at 12:50 PM EDT

HUNG HUANG, CEO of China Interactive Media Group and editor of iLook: Working in the Chinese media, I have to say, it’s never as bad as what the outside world believes it is. And I think the foreign journalists probably feel the brunt of it because they’re the most monitored people. If you’re working in the Chinese media, you’ll realize the government is only really pretty sensitive about politics and economics.

MARGARET WARNER: What are the red lines when writing about politics? Help a Westerner understand…

HUNG HUANG: What are the sensitive spots? Okay, well first of all, Tibet is a sensitive (issue), and in particular Tibet independence. I think there are lots of internal debates about Tibet in China as well, but I think Tibetan independence is off-limits. You can, Chinese just feel Tibet is part of China and it’s just an overwhelming national feeling that Tibet is part of China and Taiwan is part of China.

MARGARET WARNER: Things about Tiananmen Square are blocked.

HUNG HUANG: Tiananmen is a bit blocked. Everybody has their own opinion about it all. There are those who are pro and there are those who are con, but I think it is sort of a tacit understanding that it’s just a taboo subject. Even though, I think, probably debate goes on, not only from grassroots, all the way to the top echelon of Chinese government about how to sort of evaluate what happened in June 1989. I think this will eventually become something that Chinese will have to talk about. But not now. It’s just something that is too sensitive. And the fact that it’s a subject we don’t talk about — quite different from Tibet and Taiwan — is because there is no consensus. There is a debate, but there’s no verdict and that debate is going to happen within the Chinese government before the public can debate about it.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you as a media CEO and a writer yourself, I mean how restrictive is it for you?

HUNG HUANG: As a writer who writes satire, I feel, you know, I would love to be like Jon Stewart on the Daily Show and be able to poke fun at everything, but that’s not something you can do. As a satire writer, what you have to do is pick material that is so widely known and twist it and make it fun, right? But, you know, what is so widely known are always politics and economics. So that’s why satirists need that feed almost, it’s like a food for people, unless we can, but we are like, we have the food, we just can’t eat it.

As the government looks at these things, is that, you know, you have to go back to ancient China whereby if you want to know who’s a good guy, who’s a bad guy, the emperor’s way of passing on the message is sort of the emperor’s wall poster, which is kind of like a newspaper — in ancient Chinese times — it’s the government and the emperor’s edict, which says, you know, the emperor has decreed today blah, blah, blah, blah. There’s a messenger from province to province who writes it up in beautiful calligraphy, chops it and goes to the village and puts it on the wall and all the people come and read it. And whatever it says, the people have a habit of taking it as the truth. Nobody ever questions what the emperor said.

So given that as a tradition, the state media apparatus has a great responsibility in what they say. Because it is so easy for them to hype up something and that’s why the gag┬árule is because, you know, they’re kept on such a short leash because people actually — unlike in the United States — believe what they read in newspapers in China. And that’s frightening.

Independent thinking

MARGARET WARNER: So this is the dark side of the Internet here?

HUNG HUANG: It's a matter of people are not giving second thoughts. People are not used to independent thinking so when they, when they digest information there's no digestive system. It goes, it just goes through. You know so in some ways you kind of sort of say, alright, you do need a gag law from the state, to make sure the publishers and editors are responsible people. They can't just go and use that media to publish whatever they want. For example, I know this editor who publishes one of the most influential magazines. He personally would hate someone and he would commission an article, completely lambast the guy out of the waters.

It's just, somehow I think in some ways the government sees that. The government has always seen itself as the moral godfather to media, which kind of is an annoying. I mean, nobody wants a moral godfather, right, who comes and says, "this is bad, that's bad." In that sense everybody hates it. But on the other hand because how powerful media is, in China ... when you get to the countryside, it's unbelievable. This is the only piece of paper they have.

The perception in China is that all media is a mouthpiece for the Chinese government. But it's not anymore that the government doesn't have that kind of control over media coverage anymore. But still definitely the government can use media and, in fact, they feel it's their birthright to do that. Again, so ergo the difference between the role of the media to inform versus the role of the media to promote. And so, here, I think, in China, from a government perspective this is, media is still a very important tool for them.

From the government perspective it's like their birthright to use the media to promote because it was the emperor's newspaper, you know, to quote what the emperor thinks, who is a good guy, who is a bad guy. And I don't think, unless there is a change in the value system, Chinese respect authority a lot more. That's why Chinese are good immigrants. You know they go into a society, they really respect the authority there, they're not rebels at all, that comes from the whole Confucius philosophy of behavior. So the value system deep down in Chinese culture is to allow that authority to rule the way an emperor rules. And in some respect, if you talk to Chinese who are very traditional, conservative and probably not very well-educated, they do consider it's the government's role to play, to actually mediate and decide what is right and what is wrong. They look to the government to tell them the right and wrong of things.

MARGARET WARNER: So how does the government actually enforce this?

HUNG HUANG: Right now, it's enforced by two sets of codes. One set of codes are published. The other set is not published. So what most people in media like myself are not pushing to say okay, let's have total democracy the way that the West has it. It's just not our tradition and right now it's probably not possible. And honestly we don't have that many responsible people in the media industry ourselves. If the government really said, "okay, publish whatever you want," I can guarantee you there will, every single newspaper will become a bit like the New York Post and yellow journalism. You know, it will become Murdoch heaven, I'm sure. Whatever makes news.

So it's that kind of thing (that) will happen all over the place. So on the other hand, what we would like to have is the regulation and legislation should be open. They have to make it known to us to say, "hey, these are the rules."

MARGARET WARNER: Let's say you're a journalist and you write for China Daily. Do you get the word in advance or is it that you self-censor? How does it actually work?

HUNG HUANG: I used to host a radio show, so if you go into their office, they would have a, very much like the emperor's notice on the wall. You know, official lines on these subjects. Basically, it was a guideline of very important news, but it includes foreign policy. There (are) certain conflicts where we don't know what to say but to avoid and make any comments about it because radio's actually live in China. So you've got to tell an anchor on talk show, on talk radio what the guideline is and try to steer away.

MARGARET WARNER: So they say to stay away from contentious topics because you might veer into the wrong thing?


What is lost?

MARGARET WARNER: Now I'm expanding it beyond media. ... What is lost for China?

HUNG HUANG: I think what is lost for China is the intellectual capacity to think. What ultimately what you have is generations and generations of Chinese who don't know how to think for themselves. What this has done is completely disabilitated people from free thinking and this is the ultimate root of it and this is the horrible, horrible damage done to the national psyche and to the Chinese as a people.

We know how to make money in that way but we don't really know how to generate a modern value system so the world will accept us, and that's the problem. And this is the crossroad where we're at right now. We're very practical, we know how to make money, we don't know how to communicate our values to the rest of the world. In fact, we don't even know what our values are. And that's the problem because you need free thinkers. You need people, philosophers to think about these subjects and to be able to publish it and to be able to talk about it. You need a free press that can discuss these subjects. You need to look into our national history, our psyche, the darkest hours, to find what we have to avoid as a people. You know, the way that the Germans have searched their soul, the way that we're pleading and asking the Japanese to do, we have to do the same.

You know, we have to really look deep down to say how, how did the Cultural Revolution happen in this country? You know, what was the mass psychosis to take your professor, put him into the street and whip him with your belt and thus every single college student did that. Why? Because Mao standing on the podium just waved his hand and said, "go whip your professor"? What is wrong with you that you would listen to that? I don't think Chinese ever questioned themselves. It was good enough that we say okay, Mao had some problems and it's all his fault. You know, it's so easy for us as a people to blame it on the government. You know, but this is the total damage to our nation and to us as a people that we are not able to be introspective. We're not able to learn from our own mistakes because we have no free thinking. We have no capability because you know if you, you not allow people to think for 50 years, they're going to lose the habit of it.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think this can change?

HUNG HUANG: I think this can change if we all recognize what it's doing to us. And I think and I hope this whole thing between, I mean what happened in the last two months I think it's very important because first you had a media clamp down on Tibet, right, in China and the Chinese are getting very back to the old ways, very conservative, the way that it sees media and so on and so forth. And then you have the total openness during the earthquake where media actually were allowed a tremendous amount of access to cover what was happening in the earthquake zone.

So I think between the two, you have complete opposite reactions from foreign press. And the more they (the government) closed up they realized the foreign press just pounded them, you know, denounced them. And then, when they opened up, the foreign press actually quoted them, applauded them on the way they dealt with the disaster. And I hope this kind of continues so that people will realize what actually be, you know you kind of, you get on par with the international community as to what they think about press and how a press should be run. And really, you know, freedom of press and these things are very Western values. And whether or not China should embrace them has a lot to do with what the government thinks what they should embrace and they shouldn't embrace.

So, therefore, there are these values, but not embracing it in some ways definitely stops China. I mean, you know, if you ask the Chinese to name a Chinese philosopher, they'll say Lao Zi, Confucius. That was 5,000 years or 2,000 years ago, you know? And you can't say a major culture of dominant economy in the world, the last time they produced a philosopher was 2,000 years ago. That's sad. That's really sad, and I do think free thinking has a lot to do with it.