Keith Richburg recalls pivotal moments from his long career during the club lunch
Put down your devices, get out reporting and speak to real people: that was the advice of renowned foreign correspondent and former FCC president Keith Richburg as he addressed members at a lively club lunch exploring the internet’s effect on press freedom.
The former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief, who is now director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at HKU, said that while the digital revolution brought huge benefits in terms of instant access to news events, it also meant that journalism was suffering. Trying to be first with news is affecting the basic tenets of journalism, such as fact checking, he said.
“Lack of time is the enemy of journalists,” he told a packed meeting.
In a career spanning four decades, Richburg spoke of the rise of social media and how it had changed the way in which news organisations operate. He said that ‘people power’ uprisings in South East Asian countries including the Philippines during the 1980s had led him to form the opinion that other less open countries would follow. As the internet held democracies to account around the world, so it would also happen in China, he thought.
“But I was wrong,” he admitted.
Keith Richburg at the FCC.
Richburg returned to Hong Kong in time for the handover in 1997. He was also FCC president at the time. As it turned out, the fear and angst of before the handover faded and, for a journalist, the lack of drama meant the handover story also faded quickly.
“The story of 1997 turned out to be the beginning of the Asian Economic Crisis,” he said. “It quickly led primarily to currency devaluations and a loss of faith in governments across the region. It also led to an upsurge of the kind of people-power movements that I thought I was going to see earlier [following People Power in the Philippines].
“You will recall it led to huge street demonstrations in Jakarta which eventually led to the fall of Suharto and the Reformasi movement in Indonesia; in Thailand it led to an outpouring of protests against the government of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. He was toppled and the people pushed for what became known as the people’s constitution that was going to institutionalise change in Thailand.
“We were all swept up in this idea that the economic crisis was going to change the Southeast Asian political landscape.”
Richburg said that at the end of 1997 he wrote: ‘Just as democracy swept through Latin America and the former communist states of East Europe… East Asia too is in the midst of what many are calling a slow but steady move towards pluralism and openness.’
“I was wrong,” he said. “And a lot of what I wrote about has now been reversed in some countries – Thailand for example.”
When Richburg first went to China in 2009, through blogs and Weibo coverage he heard an obscure story about an entrapment operation looking for illegal taxis. So he went to Shanghai and found thousands of people protesting which led to the government backing down.
“I remember thinking ‘something has changed in China’; evidenced by the fact that I could hear about this hundreds of miles away and that the government actually responded to the Weibo pressure,” he said.
This led Richburg to focus on what was happening in China’s online world. “There’s the story of the blogger who looked at official photos where he focused on their wrists to see what watch they were wearing; pricing them and then matching that to officials’ salaries – disciplinary action followed for the officials.” Another blogger did the same for officials carrying handbags and brief cases into the National People’s Congress.
“It was sort of a people’s campaign against corruption,” he said. “I consider this as the free and open Weibo period where people could speak out to power and news could filter through. I thought it was never going to change back again – I was wrong.”
He cited two events in 2011 as having such a profound effect on the Chinese government as to give birth to Internet censorship as we know it today. The Arab Spring, which unfolded on social media as much as it did on an international news level; and the Wenzhou high-speed train crash, which the Chinese government moved to censor as soon as it happened; were two events that led to the government taking a hard line against Internet use.
“This really shook up the regime in China. What I did not anticipate was how effective they would be at this [censorship],” he said of the government’s Great Firewall and the many thousands of people it employs to ensure free speech is stunted, and its own propaganda is spread to “occupy the heights, to occupy this space”.
Richburg thinks his early predictions that the Internet would bring democracy to China and Hong Kong were most likely incorrect because “what’s happening here in Asia does not fit any model that we have had here before. A growing middle class makes countries more democratic was the model I studied. However, China, and Thailand for that matter, has turned that around, where the new middle class want stability rather than democracy”.
Richburg said that back in 2000, President Clinton said that controlling the Internet would be like nailing Jello to the wall. “The jello is definitely sticking to the wall.”
Sticking to the theme of incorrect predictions, Richburg said that he had believed that incoming president Xi Jinping would usher in an era of less stringent controls on the people of China.
“Another one I got wrong,” he said, adding: “I remember writing that everyone was anticipating that Xi Jinping would be seen as a breath of fresh air. We all thought ‘wow, it’s going to be terrific when Xi Jinping takes over’”. Instead, he said, colleagues were lamenting the era of Hu Jintao.
When asked by an audience member what he thought of the rise of Wikileaks, Richburg said that data dumps still needed journalists to make sense of the information and put it out to the audience. He added that he thought that organisations such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which released the Panama Papers, were the future of journalism. “That is where I think we are heading. That is a model for the future.”
Richburg said that despite being wrong about the Internet in China and the notion that after 1997 it would be Hong Kong who changed China rather than the other way around – with China more interested in pushing One China rather than One Country, Two Systems – “in my defence I would say that I was in good company”.
He said that being naturally an optimist, he saw three grounds for optimism:
First, the level of political interest and engagement in Hong Kong which he hadn’t seen before, particularly the increasing engagement by young people.
Secondly, “I see all these new news websites, blogs and media platforms – not just in Hong Kong. Few are making money, but they are trying and should have our support.”
Third, the students he is teaching. “I am very excited to see so many being excited about journalism, particularly the numbers coming from the mainland – many of whom are journalists who are here to learn best practice in journalism.
“They are the ones who will be telling China’s story. So to arm them with fairness and objectivity for the future makes my decision to change hats [from journalism to academia] worthwhile.”