A Chinese Blogging Brigade

HONG KONG – The Chinese government is mighty successful at muzzling its media, threatening them with everything from censorship to arrest. Recognizing those talents, the watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks China 168th out of 175 countries world-wide.

The Internet, though, is proving much more stubborn to rein in.

Indeed, the Chinese blogosphere – now said to number about 70,000 bloggers – is where journalists and commentators enjoy the most elbow room to speak out. And, even the opportunity to shape Chinese policies.

There’s no stopping those who taste the liberation of writing freely, as one Chinese blogger told Time magazine: “It is like a water flow – if you block one direction, it flows to other directions, or overflows.”

This is why I’m thrilled to be training a small battalion of China’s future bloggers. Here in Hong Kong, the country’s one haven for freedom of expression, a Hong Kong Baptist University colleague and I are now showing more than 70 mainland Chinese graduate students – a large majority of whom are women – how to launch a blog of their own.

And we’re not talking “silly” blogs, as I told them: Nothing about your walk in the park, with birds singing and sun shining. Nothing about where you ate dinner last night, or what movie you went to see.

No, we’re talking journalistic blogs. Um, like mine.

I’ve evolved over the years from blog-skeptic to blog-narcissist. But as a journalism trainer who teaches mostly non-native English-speakers, I’m a true believer. I preach the benefits to young or aspiring journalists, whether to hone writing and reporting skills, or spotlight their work for prospective editors.

When we’re talking China, of course, there’s nothing innocent about “starting a blog,” particularly one that treads on anything remotely sensitive or deemed “subversive.” China is even more notorious about locking up “netizens” than journalists, and continues to tighten the noose on others.

On the other hand, Tom Friedman of the New York Times recently wrote of how peculiarly nationalistic much of the Chinese blogosphere is. For example, they’re now leaning on the authorities to flex their muscles toward their Asian neighbors. Lo and behold, these voices seem to be swaying foreign policy.

Yet what’s striking about my students is how many describe their motivation to become journalists as borne of curiosity and concern for the lives of ordinary Chinese, particularly the hundreds of millions deprived a morsel of China’s astounding economic transformation.

As one young woman from the mainland told me so eloquently last week, “They say all of China is in harmony, but there are so many voiceless people. I want to give them an opportunity to be heard.”

Their first assignment was to interview any working person in Hong Kong, and the results are in: a slew of sensitive profiles of ordinary Wangs and Chans trying to eke out a living – shopkeepers, doormen, taxi drivers and plenty of migrants from the mainland.

So this blog experiment, I now see, may bear a different kind of fruit. Just as those nationalist-leaning bloggers galvanize a certain segment of society regarding Chinese foreign policy, my students who return to the mainland could one day do the same for China’s myriad social problems.

Which could lead them head-long into conflict with the authorities. The idea of nudging them along that path gives me palpitations. It’s also why I’m handling this responsibility with great care. Write about real people as a window onto real problems, I tell them. But keep your opinion to yourself. Let the facts speak for themselves. Allow readers to decide for themselves what, if anything, needs to improve.

Still, I worry: would that be enough to inoculate them from the government’s wrath?

Michael J. Jordan, who arrived in Lesotho in 2011, is the lone Western foreign correspondent living in the country – and covering its crisis.