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COLUMN: Belly of the dragon

I spent my summer interning at a state-run newspaper in Beijing.

While I wish I could spin a yarn about a headstrong American journalist tampering with the innards of the Chinese propaganda machine, I cannot.

Most days I sat at my desk browsing Facebook, queuing up photos for my blog, and trying to decide if I wanted noodles or rice for lunch. I wrote stories too, sometimes.

The closest I ever got to rocking the boat was when I ran into a well-known political activist in the park.

When I told my colleagues about the experience, none seemed to care much.

“Oh, you met Ai Weiwei? Cool story, Darnell.”

I spent days questioning whether I was being tracked by government watchdogs for shaking the hand of China’s most prominent (non-imprisoned) social activist. I assure you, being a foreigner on a bicycle outside the Forbidden City raised more eyebrows.

While there, I didn’t see reporters struggling against the will of the state. I also didn’t see reporters doing the state’s bidding. Things weren’t so black and white.

These were normal people, not cookie-cutter caricatures. Reporters were well-informed despite certain sensitive subjects being downplayed in our own paper.

There are some notable differences between a Chinese newsroom and one in the U.S., though.

First, things were pretty quiet.

Reporters mostly kept to themselves. There were no hot-headed, quick-witted blowhards shouting strings of expletives at each other. I actually kind of missed the aural filth that hovers over American newsrooms.

Chinese reporters also have a different approach to their work.

In the U.S., reporters often feed on cynicism. We go in looking for ways to criticize, and we don’t shy away from stirring up controversy.

It’s been said this is a very American expression of nationalism. It’s not that we don’t like our country, we just always have reasons to dislike it too, and we’d much rather talk about those.

In my experience, this wasn’t the case in China. The default approach wasn’t to report on what’s going wrong but to report on what’s going right. It’s a style I’ve come to understand even if I’m not completely comfortable with it.

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