Covering news China-style: the day I was bribed
I recently received a bribe in China. The 300 yuan ($52) was a reward for attending a local government press conference promoting a trade fair. At least that’s what I think it was about, everyone spoke in Chinese.
What did I give them? I’m not really sure. I’m a journalist but my role in this transaction was simply to be the token foreigner in the audience.
Like everyone else there, I was handed a bag that contained the cash in a white envelope and a glossy booklet promoting the trade fair.
There were more than 50 journalists in the room, which is pretty incredible when you consider the story on offer. I counted ten TV crews and a Chinese radio station that would go live for the thrilling trade fair announcement.
I walked to the front row of seats with my host and a Chinese journalist who was to file an article for a website. My brief was simply to sit there. “They just want a foreigner in the audience, otherwise there will be too many Chinese,” my host told me earlier that morning.
I have covered many press conferences in Australia but I had a suspicion that the bag I received contained more than just a few press releases. I looked around at what other people were doing with their bags but most people were busy writing in their notebooks or playing with camera gear.
There was nothing to indicate anything about this scene was unusual, so I asked my host about the envelope that still lay in the bag.
He laughed: “We call this envelope news.”
I was dumbfounded.“Seriously, there is money inside it?” I asked.
“Yes, it is supposed to cover travel expenses,” he said, before adding jokingly. “Don’t you remember? We took a limo.”
I was already aware that journalists are sometimes offered money to report or to bury stories in China. My host told me some organizations see the cash as providing a benefit to journalists, but the central government offered no such incentive.
The press conference dragged on for 45 minutes. After prepared statements from six officials about what benefits the event would bring the local economy, the floor was later thrown open to questions, which had been prepared beforehand by the organizers and handed out to reporters.
However as we got up to leave, I was heartened when some journalists rushed to the front of the room to quiz an official about a controversial and un-scripted matter.
During the 20-yuan taxi ride back to the city, the Chinese journalist asked me if I had ever been offered money to cover stories in Australia.
“No,” I said, then added: “Well, I have written articles about holiday destinations that I have visited free of charge, but I have never been offered cash to cover a story.”
The trade fair was reported as a news item that night on China’s national broadcaster – the delightfully named CCTV. My host, the Chinese journalist and myself – the token foreigner – were shown seated in the front row, apparently engrossed in the announcement, as the three bags sat near our feet, out of shot.
The 300 yuan has been donated to charity.
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