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Zhang versus Zhang: An Online Debate over the Value of Studying Journalism in China

Is pursuing a degree in journalism worth it in China? Educational adviser Zhang Xuefeng says no, while professor Zhang Xiaoqiang says yes. Their online debate has captivated millions of people.

Zilan Qian

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Chinese educational internet influencer Zhang Xuefeng (张雪峰) recently sparked a trending discussion by strongly discouraging Chinese youth from pursuing a degree in journalism. While scholars and state media emphasize the merits of studying journalism, a significant number of netizens question its benefits, labeling it as impractical, uneducational, and restrictive.

With the announcement of the 2023 Chinese National College Entrance Examination (Gaokao) scores this week, the process of selecting university preferences has become the focal point for more than 12.9 million families in China.

Zhang Xuefeng (张雪峰), an internet celebrity widely recognized as the “famous teacher for postgraduate entrance exams,” has found himself at the center of an online controversy for advising students against applying for journalism programs.

According to a report by Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报), the incident originated from a livestreamed phone conversation between Zhang Xuefeng and a parent of a student, who was seeking advice.

Upon learning that a science student from Xinjiang had estimated a score of 590 – surpassing the cutoff for admission to first-tier universities, – while expressing an interest in applying for the journalism program at Sichuan University, Zhang Xuefeng reacted with some extreme emotions and remarks.

He advised against pursuing journalism, stating, “Don’t apply for journalism! Any other major you choose blindly would be better than journalism.” He even went as far as saying that if he were the parent, he would “definitely knock the child unconscious if they insisted on studying journalism” (“这孩子非要报新闻学,我一定会把他打晕”).

A screenshot of Zhang Xuefeng’s live stream phone call session in which he dissuaded the student from selecting Journalism. The line reads: “Just don’t select Journalism, ok?”

After a video of their livestreamed conversation was shared by Yan Tu Education, Zhang Xuefeng’s educational company, on their official Douyin account, Zhang’s provocative remarks gained attention from various parties, including journalism scholars and Chinese (state) media outlets.

The ‘Zhang vs Zhang’ online debate started in mid-June when Professor Dr. Zhang Xiaoqiang (张小强) from Chongqing University’s School of Journalism criticized Zhang Xuefeng’s comments, describing them as “harmful and misleading to the public” (“害人不浅,误导公众”).

According to media outlet The Paper, Dr. Zhang argues that the field of journalism is applicable to many different domains, and parents can trust the journalism departments in prominent Chinese universities and colleges.

He believes that the negative perception of the journalism profession stems from the narrow belief that it only leads to careers in traditional media. However, Dr. Zhang asserts that graduates from journalism departments go on to work in various fields.

He suggested that journalism graduates are often recruited for communication roles, and that they can find employment at government organizations, state-owned enterprises, new media companies, or even gaming start-ups. He also cautioned against being deceived by individuals like Zhang Xuefeng, whom he referred to as a mere “internet celebrity.”

 
Three Reasons Not To Pursue Journalism Major in China
 

While there are authoritative voices defending journalism education, there is still substantial support for Zhang Xuefeng’s perspective on discouraging journalism as a career choice.

This support mainly stems from three primary reasons: the perceived impracticality of the profession, doubts about the substantive nature and effectiveness of journalism education, and concerns about the limited freedom and liberal values within the field.

 
1. Not Practical (“无用”)

Firstly, a journalism degree has been deemed as “impractical” as it cannot guarantee good employment prospects.

Zhang Xuefeng dissuades students from pursuing journalism because, according to him, choosing this major would make it hard to secure a livelihood. For families with limited resources, it is important to choose a field of study that is practical and will enable young people to support themselves (“吃上饭”).

He also emphasizes the need to consider real-life circumstances rather than blindly following prescribed norms. Zhang said, “I am not targeting anyone or any specific profession. I am only providing suggestions based on employment situations. If your child cannot find a job, the responsibility lies not with the teachers but with you as parents!”

However, individuals like Dr. Zhang Xiaoqiang strongly oppose such practicalism. On June 17th, during an interview with Fengmian News (封面新闻), Professor Zhang Xiaoqiang stated that the primary consideration for choosing a major should be the student’s interest instead of employability.

Similarly, China Education Daily (中国教育报) published an article titled “Beware of the Misleading Influence of Internet Celebrity Remarks on College Major Selection” (“警惕网红言论误导志愿填报”), condemning Zhang Xuefeng’s statement for being overly arbitrary and shortsighted. The article emphasizes that personal interests and aspirations are also crucial in major selection and encourages young people to dream big and explore uncertainties.

However, many netizens support Zhang’s pragmatic approach and criticize scholars and state media for being overly idealistic and lacking understanding of the difficulties faced by ordinary people, and especially the younger generations, in China today.

The phrase “Why not eat meat?” (“何不食肉糜,” referring to those in positions of power and influence often failing to understand the hardships of common people) has become widely used in this discussion to highlight the discrepancy between scholars and authoritative voices who advocate for choosing majors based on interests and the economic constraints faced by many families.

“The lower the socioeconomic status of the family, the higher the cost of making mistakes in choosing a major, and therefore students should be more cautious in their decision-making,” commented one netizen, contradicting the argument that young people should pursue their passions without considering practicality.

 
2. Non-Educational (“无学”)

Studying journalism in universities has also faced criticism for being seen as “non-educational” due to the belief that a journalism degree is unnecessary to become a journalist and lacks a substantial theoretical foundation.

The non-profit organization ‘Narada Insights’ (@南都观察) posted an opinion piece by Liu Yuanju (刘远举), a research fellow at the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law, on their Weibo account. In the piece, Liu highlights the failure of journalism education to provide in-depth content. Writing skills in journalism can be acquired by competent high school graduates, and the ability to gather and evaluate information is a fundamental skill that extends beyond the journalism field, primarily developed through life and work experiences. Therefore, Liu argues, it becomes challenging for students to acquire specific journalism-related skills and knowledge in universities.

Furthermore, Liu points out that journalism is often perceived to have a relatively low entry barrier, as many successful media professionals do not hold journalism degrees at all. On the other hand, knowledge in areas such as science, technology, economics, finance, or law can be advantageous for journalism work. In practice, media organizations often prefer candidates with these kind of educational backgrounds, as they are the ones with specialized expertise in specific industries.

 
3. Lack of Freedom (“无自由”)

One third complain and common perception of journalism departments is that they primarily teach students how to align with the state’s agenda, which has led to accusations of Chinese journalism being severely restrictive.

Author Liu Shen Leilei (六神磊磊), a former journalist of Politics and Law at the Chongqing Branch of Xinhua News Agency, shared his thoughts on this topic on Weibo. According to Liu, journalism departments lack substantial theories and instead instruct students to be obedient and comply with authorities.

One journalism graduate agreed with Liu’s post, suggesting that they were being compelled to say what the state wants: “I graduated in journalism, and I have a deep aversion to the field. We not only lack the freedom to speak the truth but are also deprived of the freedom to remain silent.”

Even if students possess enough passion to overcome the ‘impractical’ and ‘uneducational’ aspects of journalism education in Chinese universities, they may be disillusioned when they find that the practice of “journalism” in China does not align with their expectations and ideals.

In response to Liu Shen Leilei’s post, another commenter emphasized the profound challenge of reporting the truth in today’s context and asserted that “journalism has died (新闻已死).” This statement reflects the perception that authentic and truthful reporting has become virtually non-existent. Instead, media outlets are believed to employ various tactics to attract attention and disseminate state propaganda. On social media, there is a frequent suggestion to “rename journalism departments as propaganda departments” to reflect this perceived reality.

 
An End to the Debate?
 

As the Zhang versus Zhang discussion on pursuing a degree in Journalism continued, Dr. Zhang Xiaoqiang recently took to his social media to express his desire to end the debate, acknowledging the overwhelming criticisms from netizens (#张小强称给自己和张雪峰争论画上句号#, #张小强说和张雪峰争论结束#).

“I still firmly believe that journalism and communication are good majors with promising prospects,” he wrote. “However, media professionals and educators need to foster a positive public opinion and social environment for their own development. We must first prove ourselves.”

Meanwhile, on Chinese social media, various hashtags have emerged in light of this discussion. One of them is “Who Do You Support in the Zhang Xuefeng Journalism Studies Debate?” (#张雪峰新闻学之争你支持谁#), which has reached over 130 million views on Weibo by now.

There even is a possibility to vote on whose side you are.

With more than 42,000 votes, it is clear who the majority of netizens agree with most: 39,000 voters agreed with Zhang Xuefeng that studying journalism is not a favorable option for Chinese young people today.

“They’re starting rumors, smooth things over, and oppose the people,” another person criticizes the state of journalism.

While the debate between Zhang Xuefeng and Professor Zhang Xiaoqiang may have temporarily subsided, the ongoing discourse surrounding the significance of journalism in China is bound to continue.

By Zilan Qian

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Part of featured image via Xigua Shipin.

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©2023 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Zilan Qian is a China-born undergraduate student at Barnard College majoring in Anthropology. She is interested in exploring different cultural phenomena, loves people-watching, and likes loitering in supermarkets and museums.

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The Beishan Park Stabbings: How the Story Unfolded and Was Censored on Weibo

A timeline of the censorship & reporting of the Jilin Beishan Park stabbing incident on Chinese social media.

Manya Koetse

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The recent stabbing incident at Beishan Park in Jilin city, involving four American teachers, has made headlines worldwide. However, on the Chinese internet, the story was initially kept under wraps. This is a brief overview of how the incident was reported, censored, and discussed on Weibo.

On Monday, June 10, four Americans were stabbed while visiting Beishan park in Jilin.

Video footage of the victims lying on the ground in the park was viewed by millions of people outside the Chinese internet by Monday afternoon.

Despite the serious and unusual nature of such an attack on foreigners visiting China, it took about an entire day for the news to be reported by official Chinese channels.

 
How the Beishan Incident Unfolded Online
 

In the afternoon of June 10, news about four foreigners being stabbed in Jilin’s Beishan Park started circulating online.

Among the first online accounts to report this incident was the well-known Chinese-language X account ‘Li Laoshi’ (李老师不是你老师, @whyyoutouzhele), which has 1.5 million followers, along with the news account Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24), which has 1 million followers on X.

They both posted a video showing the incident’s aftermath, which soon went viral on X and beyond. It showed how three victims – one female and two male – were lying on the ground at the park, bleeding heavily while waiting for medical help. A police officer was already at the scene.

As soon as the video and tweets triggered discussions in the English-language social media sphere, it was clear that Chinese social media platforms were censoring and blocking mentions of the incident.

By Monday night, China local time, many Weibo commenters had started writing about what had happened in Beishan Park earlier that day, but their posts became unavailable.

Some bloggers wrote about receiving an automated message from Weibo management that their posts had been taken offline. Others started posting about “that thing in Jilin,” but even those messages disappeared. On other platforms, such as Douyin, the story was also being contained.

By 21:00-22:00 local time, a hashtag on Weibo, “Jilin Beishan Park Foreigners” (吉林北山外国人), briefly became the second most-searched topic before it was taken offline. Weibo stated: “According to relevant laws, regulations, and policies, the content of this topic is not shown.”

A hashtag about the Beishan stabbings soon became one of the hottest search queries before it disappeared.

While netizens came up with more creative words and other descriptions to talk about what had happened, the focus shifted from what had happened in Beishan Park to why the topic was being censored. “What’s this? Why can’t we talk about it?” one Weibo user wondered: “Not a single piece of news!”

Around 23:30 local time, another blogger posted: “It seems to be real that four foreigners were stabbed in Jilin’s Beishan Park this afternoon. We’ll have to see when it will formally be reported on Weibo.” Others questioned, “Why is the Jilin incident so tightly covered up on the internet?”

Around 04:00 local time on June 11, the first media outlet to really report on what had happened was Iowa Public Radio (IPR News). Before that time, one Iowan citizen had already commented on X that their sister-in-law was one of the victims involved.

One victim’s family had told IPR News that the individuals involved were four Cornell College instructors. All four survived and were recovering at a nearby hospital after being stabbed during a park visit in China.

The instructors were part of a partnership with Beihua University in Jilin. Cornell College and Beihua University have had an active partnership since 2018, with Beihua funding Cornell instructors to visit China, travel, and teach during a two-week period. Members from both institutions were visiting the public park in Jilin City when they were attacked. The visit was likely intended as a sightseeing and relaxation opportunity during the Dragon Boat Festival holiday, when many people visit the park.

As reported by IPR News reporter Zachary Oren Smith (@ZacharyOS), U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks stated that her office was working with the U.S. Embassy to ensure the victims would receive care for their injuries and safely leave China.

 
Hu Xijin Post
 

Now that news of the attack on four Americans was all over X, soon picked up by dozens of international news outlets, the Chinese censorship of the story seemed unusual, considering the magnitude of the story.

Furthermore, there had still been no official statement from the Chinese side, nor any news reports on the suspect and whether or not he had been detained.

By the morning of June 11, an internal, unverified BOLO notice from the Jilin city Chuanying police office circulated online. It identified the suspect as 55-year-old Jilin resident Cui Dapeng (崔大鹏), who was still at large. The notice also clarified that there were not four but five victims in total.

At 11:33 local time, it seemed that the wall of censorship surrounding the incident was suddenly lifted when Chinese political and social commentator Hu Xijin (胡锡进), who has nearly 25 million followers on Weibo, posted about what had happened.

He based his post on “Western media reports,” and commented that this is a time when Chinese and American sides are actually promoting exchange. He saw the incident as a “random” one, which, regardless of the attacker’s motive, does not reflect broader sentiment within Chinese society. He concluded, “I also hope and believe that this incident will not negatively affect the exchanges between China and the US.”

Hu’s post spurred a flurry of discussions about the Beishan Park incident, turning it into a top-searched topic once again. His comments sparked controversy, with many disagreeing with his suggestion that the incident could potentially affect Sino-American exchanges. Many argued that there are numerous examples of Chinese people being attacked or even murdered in the US without anyone suggesting it would harm US-China relations.

Within approximately two hours of posting, Hu’s post was no longer visible and had disappeared from his timeline. This sudden deletion or blocking of his post again triggered confusion: Was Hu being censored? Why?

Later, screenshots of Hu Xijin’s post shared on social media were also censored.

 
A “Collision”
 

By the early Tuesday evening, June 11, Chinese official accounts and state media accounts finally issued a report on what had happened in what was now dubbed the “Beishan Park Stabbing Incident” (#吉林公安通报北山公园伤人案#).

Jilin authorities issued a report on what happened in Beishan Park.

A notice from local public security authorities stated that the first emergency call about a stabbing incident at the park came in at 11:49 in the morning on Monday, June 10, and police and medical assistance soon arrived at the scene.

The 55-year-old Chinese suspect, referred to as ‘Cui’ (崔某某), reportedly stabbed one of the Americans after they bumped into each other at the park (described as “a collision” 发生碰撞). The suspect then attacked the American, his three American companions, and a Chinese visitor who tried to intervene. Reports indicated that the victims were all transported to the hospital and were not in critical condition.

It was also stated that the suspect was arrested on the “same day,” without specifying the time and location of the arrest.

Later on Tuesday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs addressed the incident during their regular press conference. Spokesperson Lin Jian (林剑) stated that local police had initially judged the case to be a random incident and that they were conducting further investigation (#外交部回应吉林北山公园伤人案#).

 
Boxer Rebellion References
 

With the discussions about the incident on Chinese social media less controlled, various views emerged, commenting on issues such as public safety in China, US-China relations, and anti-Western sentiments.

One notable trend during the early discussions of the incident is how many commenters referenced to the ‘Boxer Rebellion’ (1899–1901), an anti-foreign, anti-Christian uprising that took place during the final years of the Qing Dynasty and led to large-scale massacres of foreign residents. Many commenters believed the attacker had nationalist motives targeting foreigners.

Anti-american, nationalist sentiments also surfaced online. Some commenters laughed about the incident or praised the attacker for doing a “good job.”

However, the majority argued that this event should not be seen as indicative of a broader trend of foreign-targeted violence in China. They emphasized that Asians in America are far more frequently targeted in hate crimes than any Westerner in China, underscoring that this incident is just an isolated case.

This idea of the event being “random” (“偶然事件”) was reiterated in official reports, Hu Xijin’s column, and by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But there are also those who think this might be a conspiracy, calling it bizarre for such a rare incident to occur just when Chinese tourism was finally starting to flourish in the post-Covid era: “Now that our tourism industry is booming, foreigners are getting stabbed? How could it be such a coincidence? Is it possible that this was arranged by spies from other countries?”

On Tuesday, social commentator Hu Xijin made a second attempt at posting about the Beishan Park incident. This time, his post was shorter and less outspoken:

“This appears to be a public security incident,” he wrote: “But this time, four foreign nationals were attacked. In every place around the world, there are criminal and public security incidents where foreigners become victims. China is one of the relatively safest countries in the world, but this incident still occurred in broad daylight in a tourist area. This reminds us, that we need to always keep enhancing the effectiveness of security measures to protect the safety of all Chinese and foreign nationals.”

Again, his post triggered some controversy as some bloggers discovered that Hu had previously argued against extra security checks at Chinese parks, which he deemed unnecessary. They felt he was now contradicting himself.

The differing views on Hu’s posts and the incident at large perhaps explain why the news was initially controlled and censored. Although censorship and control are inherent parts of the Chinese social media apparatus, the level of control over this story was quite unusual. Whether it was due to the suspect still being on the loose, public safety concerns, fears of rising nationalist sentiments, or the need to understand the full details before the story blew up, we will likely never know.

Nevertheless, this time, Hu’s post stayed up.

The Beishan Park incident is reportedly still under investigation.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2024 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China’s Intensified Social Media Propaganda: “Taiwan Must Return to Motherland”

As ‘Taiwan’ is all over Chinese social media, the discourse is controlled and heavily influenced by Chinese official media accounts.

Manya Koetse

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PREMIUM CONTENT

Following the inauguration of Taiwanese president Lai Ching-te on Monday, Taiwan has been a trending topic on Chinese social media all week.

Chinese state media have launched an intensive social media propaganda campaign featuring strong language and clear visuals, reinforcing the message: Taiwan is not a country, Taiwan is part of China, and reunification with the motherland is inevitable.

On Friday, May 24, almost half of the trending topics on Chinese social media platform Weibo were related to Taiwan, its status, and China’s large-scale military drills around Taiwan that began on Thursday.

 

“Taiwan never was a country, and it will never become a country”

 

On Monday, Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, took office after winning the Taiwan elections in January of this year. He was handed over the leadership by Tsai Ing-wen, who served as Taiwan’s president for two four-year terms.

Before leaving office, Tsai spoke to the media and reiterated her stance that Taiwan is an independent, sovereign country. In his inaugural speech, Lai also echoed that sentiment, referring to Taiwan as a nation and urging its people not to “harbor any delusions” about China and cross-strait peace.

Although Chinese official sources did not say much about Lai’s inauguration on the day itself, Chinese state media outlet CCTV issued a strong statement on Wednesday that went viral on social media. They posted an online “propaganda poster” showing the word “unification” (统一) in red, accompanied by the sentence: “‘Taiwan Independence’ is a dead-end road, unification is unstoppable.

The hashtag posted with this image said, “Taiwan never was a country, and it will never become a country,” reiterating a statement by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi when Lai won the elections in early 2024.

The propaganda poster posted by CCTV on May 22 was all about “reunification.”

Within merely eight hours, that hashtag (“Taiwan never was a country, and it will never become a country” #台湾从来不是一个国家也永远不会成为一个国家#) received over 640 million views on Weibo, where it was top trending on Wednesday, accompanied by another hashtag saying “China will ultimately achieve complete reunification” (#中国终将实现完全统一#).

 

“With each provocation our countermeasures advance one step further, until the complete reunification of the motherland is achieved”

 

Starting on Thursday, China’s military exercises in the Taiwan Strait became a major topic on the Chinese internet.

“Joint Sword-2024A” (联合利剑—2024A) is the overarching name for the land, sea, and air military exercises conducted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), designed to test the armed forces’ ability to “seize power” and control key areas of the island.

The political message behind these exercises, asserting China’s claim over Taiwan and showcasing its military power, is as visible online as it is offline.

On Weibo, People’s Daily live-blogged the latest details of the military exercises around Taiwan, including strong statements by the Ministry of Defense and experts asserting that the PLA has the capability to hit various crucial targets in Taiwan, including its southeastern air defense zone.

The Eastern Theater Command (东部战区) of the PLA also released a 3D animation to simulate the destruction of “Taiwan independence headquarters,” severing the “lifeline of Taiwan independence.”

CCTV Military (央视军事) posted that the ongoing PLA operation is aimed to break Taiwan’s “excessive arrogance.”

They quoted the spokesperson of the Ministry of Defense in saying: “With each provocation from [supporters of] ‘Taiwan independence,’ our countermeasures advance one step further until the complete reunification of the motherland is achieved.”

 

“The motherland must unify, and it will inevitably unify”

 

One relatively new slogan used in the online propaganda campaign regarding Taiwan this week is “Táiwān dāngguī” (#台湾当归#), which means “Taiwan must return [to the motherland].

However, the slogan is also a play on words, as the term dāngguī (当归) refers to Angelica Sinensis, the Chinese Angelica root (“female ginseng”), a medicinal herb commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine, native to China and cultivated in various East Asian countries.

In one poster disseminated by People’s Daily, Taiwan is depicted on the left – resembling a piece of the yellowish root – as a part of the character “归” (guī, to return, go back to). The remainder of the character consists of various slogans commonly used by Chinese official media to emphasize that Taiwan is part of China.

New poster by People’s Daily. ‘Taiwan’ on the left side resembles a piece of Chinese Angelica root (looks like ginseng).

These sentences include slogans like, “China can’t be one bit less” (“中国一点都不能少”) that has been used by state media to emphasize China’s one-China principle since the 2016 South China Sea dispute.

Accompanying the “Taiwan Must Return” hashtag, People’s Daily writes: “‘Taiwanese independence’ goes against history, it’s a dead end. The motherland must unify, and it will inevitably unify. #TaiwanMustReturn#.”

Within a single day, the hashtag received a staggering 2.4 billion views on Weibo.

Although ‘Taiwan’ is all over Chinese social media, the discourse is controlled and heavily influenced by Chinese official media accounts. The majority of comments from netizens echo official slogans on the issue, expressing sentiments such as “Taiwan will never be a country,” “I support the ‘One China’ principle,” and “Taiwan is part of China.”

A post by CCTV regarding reunification with Taiwan garnered over 100,000 comments, yet only a fraction of these discussions were visible at the time of writing.

Amidst all the slogans and official discourse, there are also some bloggers expressing a broader view on the issue.

One of them wrote: “In the current official media lineup regarding ‘Taiwan is a province of China’, there are no longer any “warnings” or “demands” to be found. The rhetoric has shifted towards reprimands, and towards an emphasis on the legal principles behind the reclamation of Taiwan. I am convinced that a reunification through military force is no longer a ‘Plan B’ – it is the definite direction we are moving towards.”

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2024 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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