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Gateway to China: Local Hub Talk Coincides with Travel from St. Louis to Chengdu

Patch Regional Editor Holly Edgell reflects on a recent trip to China and how the society is evolving in the digital age.

There has been a good deal of talk about China in metro St. Louis lately. Our lawmakers, business groups, and corporate leaders hope to make the region a hub for trade with China. That hope has a name: Aerotropolis. Right about now there is a bit of turbulence around the idea, though,  on Clayton-Richmond Heights Patch.

Maryland Heights Patch and Hazelwood Patch , which would involve providing tax credits for developers to build cargo warehouses and related infrastructure in the communities near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

Where do I come in?

While China has been causing some buzz in our area, I actually had the opportunity to travel to that country on July 8. I was part of a journalism training trip to Chengdu in the Sichuan Province organized by the University of Missouri School of Journalism. 

Also on the trip was Adam Symson, vice president for interactive television for E.W. Scripps, who talked about what his company is doing to reach and serve audiences in the digital age. Missouri professor Dr. Ernest Zhang shared insights about how models for journalism and the business of journalism are changing in the digital age.

The staff of the Chengdu Economic Daily and several employees of its sister media outlets listened to me talk about Patch and hyperlocal, blogging, aggregation and other related topics.

The Virtual Life, China style

With a population of about 14 million, Chengdu is only China’s fifth largest city.

It seemed that everyone had a smart phone, with the iPhone being particularly popular. Tablets are all the rage.

Most Chinese do not have access to Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Google is restricted, although you can do some search via the Hong Kong version. Of course, many people have found ways around the cyber lockdown. (Using a Virtual Private Network or VPN is one method). Unable to access my Gmail account, I relied on Yahoo Mail and Linkedin to stay connected.

What more than 100 million people do have access to is the Chinese version of Twitter, called Sina Weibo, which translates as “China micro blogging.”

Many of the journalists I met in Chengdu were glued to their Weibo feeds using their smart phones. They talked openly to their American visitors about how Weibo allows just enough freedom to share news, vent about the government (which runs Weibo and all Chinese media), and otherwise speak out in ways not possible pre-Weibo. 

Cracks in the wall?

Recent news stories show how the micro blog phenomenon may be weakening the heavy hand of Chinese censorship. An example of this is the digital discussion that’s arisen in China after a fatal high-speed train crash. The New York Times headline is “In Baring Facts of Train Crash, Blogs Erode China Censorship.”

While I was still in China, I read an article in the English language China Daily with the headline, “Escalator safety in spotlight: Growing concerns that standards in China are too lax,” about a malfunctioning escalator that claimed the life of a teen.

This caught my eye: a Chinese newspaper openly covering criticism of the Chinese system?

The article got even more interesting: It cited American standards for escalators, comparing them favorably to Chinese requirements.

Another item of note from the same issue of the China Daily was about recent breakdowns along the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line. Again, here was criticism of the state. And, this time, a quote from a China Central Television news anchor’s micro blog:

“Why do the public and media express doubt and act  ‘irrationally?’ Because when some (government) departments promote a new thing or a new policy, they only talk about the positive, but avoid mentioning shortcomings,” wrote Zhang Quangling. “The public may not buy the words totally, but their expectations are high.

“If the railway department pre-warned that high-speed trains could be disrupted by thunderstorms and gales, or that problems are inevitable in the initial stages, I would not have such high expectations. Rationality should be fostered from the very beginning.”

Strong stuff.

The digital dilemma

I remind myself that what the Chinese government giveth, it can taketh away. The state oversees Sina Weibo and pretty much anything else in China that relates to the ways people use the web and the news media to find and share information.

For now, it apparently suits the Chinese government to allow millions of people to chat on micro blogs, and apparently it also suits them to allow critical news coverage of some issues and events.

I wonder, with a nation of more than one-billion people, just how long a relatively small group of officials and functionaries can keep cracks and fissures from bringing down the whole wall. 

And how do you say "Aerotropolis" in Chinese?

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