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At this year’s German-Chinese media dialogue in Berlin participants shared concerns over separating real news from fake news on social media while acknowledging the fundamental differences in how both sides see the role of the media. Chinese participants spoke of the media’s job to promote government views, i.e. on globalization. Germans demanded better access to the Chinese media market and better conditions for foreign correspondents in China.

German and Chinese media representatives exchanged views at the 7th German-Chinese Media Dialogue at Humboldt University in Berlin on May 7, 2018.

There was curiosity, mixed with some misgivings, among German journalists gathered for the seventh state-level media dialogue in Berlin on May 7 – after all it is no secret that the values and practices behind journalism in Germany, one of the world’s most open societies, and China, one of the world’s most censored, are different. How would they connect to their Chinese counterparts?

Yet in four working groups over the course of the day (they dealt with the role and responsibilities of the media in times of globalization, and international communication in a social media age,) some real progress was made. The atmosphere was largely courteous, everyone had their say, information was shared, and, while there were differences, there was also a sense of connection to people through issues on which both sides agreed, and disagreed.

Germans like detail, Chinese make broader points

Several times, Chinese participants pointed to something they felt was a key difference: while Chinese journalists preferred to speak broadly, Germans were detail-focused. “You like detail, we like generalities,” said Wu Qimin, the deputy director general of the International English Department of the People’s Daily.

So much so that Wang Xiaotong, director of the media center at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, referred to the growing global interconnectedness in vague terms. “You are in me and I am in you,” she said, a notion that puzzled some of the German journalists.

A key theme that emerged at the event, part of state-level consultations between Germany and China and held in a neoclassical, former veterinary school established by the Prussian kings now part of the Humboldt Graduate School: Chinese media see it as part of their job to promote the Chinese government’s vision of globalization, for example by reporting on “One Belt One Road (OBOR),” China’s flagship international policy project.

Will Chinese reporters join global cooperative investigations?

German reporters were more skeptical and asked it if were possible in China to examine critically the process, in regard to global issues such as the growing wealth gap and the fast accumulation of power and resources of international finance companies. Sven Hansen of Tageszeitung (taz), the German daily newspaper, asked if it would be possible one day to cooperate with Chinese reporters on the large, multi-point, cooperative investigations that had produced key moments in journalism in recent years, such as the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers. The request was taken on board and later, in summarizing the event, Shao Jianguang, the deputy director of the International Cooperation Center of China Media Group, expressed some support for the idea.

The dialogue over globalization was occasionally scratchy, with German reporters pressing for detail on issues such as how Chinese media were staffing their operations (but not getting answers) and the moderators regularly interrupting when Chinese participants spoke for too long or appeared to stray from media issues into political and economic topics, such as the importance of OBOR. In a discussion of wrongdoing by states, Chinese reporters referred to events in the United States such as the Watergate scandal under the Nixon administration. They claimed that China was very open and transparent, citing the 2012 corruption case against Bo Xilai, the former party secretary of Chongqing, as an example of public broadcasting of major wrongdoing.

In comparison, the social media sessions were smoother. (Full disclosure: I moderated one group, and Ariane Reimers of ARD, the German state broadcaster and a former China correspondent, the other.)

Participants agreed that the internet has produced a cacophony

There was true agreement that “social media” was a real form of media (and not merely platforms supported by technology companies), and therefore carried social responsibility. Zhao Zizhong, the dean of the New Media Institute and the Communication University of China, shared some research that explored who, in China, was putting a negative interpretation of public events online, and found that “only a very small percentage of people was bad.” With 38 billion WeChat messages daily, the state could not possibly control everything and only intervened to manage what it deemed false reports (for example, of a violent attack underway somewhere, which was in reality not happening) if they reached a certain amount.

The internet had produced a “cacophony,” the Chinese journalists said – something the German journalists agreed with – and it was important to maintain clear voices of authority. In China, that was People’s Daily. “Content is king, but the platform is a bigger king,” (“内容是王道,平台是霸道,”) said Ms. Wu.

Opening the event that morning, Andreas Michaelis, the German deputy foreign minister, had asked for “a real and honest dialogue.” Guo Weimin, the Chinese vice minister of the State Council Information Office, said: “We absolutely want results from this cooperation.”

In that spirit, participants shared their ideas of what results could look like, with specific proposals: Come to our OBOR conference in China, said one; another demanded more access for German companies to the Chinese media market. Other proposals included: more articles by German experts for Chinese media, more openness from China but also more sensitively contextualized stories by German reporters in China, cooperation on reporting beat stories such as weapons sales, more German TV content for China such as programs on soccer or nature, and, finally, more visas, and better access, for German journalists in China, to match the conditions of Chinese journalists in Germany.