“Advocacy Journalism is not the Problem” –

an Interview with former Deutsche Welle Editor Fengbo Wang on the Zhang Danhong Controversy, Dissidents in Germany, and the Persian Factor

Wang Fengbo came to Germany in 1991, studied politics in Mainz, and was editor of what is now the European Chinese Post, an overseas Chinese paper. In the interview following this introduction, Wang describes the publication as a dissident paper, a description which appears to be correct. In 1989, he had seen dead bodies piled up in a Beijing hospital, Wang told an EPD (Evangelischer Pressedienst) reporter last year. “Having seen that, there is no other way for you than to be a supporter of democracy”, he added.

From 2002 until December 2010, Wang Fengbo worked for Deutsche Welle‘s (the Voice of Germany’s) Chinese department. He and three more of his colleagues lost their jobs, or freelance contracts respectively, as their contracts weren’t renewed. In April last year, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung published an open letter by the four, to Germany’s Federal Parliament’s lower house (Bundestag), and to the Deutsche Welle broadcasting commission. According to their open letter, Deutsche Welle initially gave budget cuts as a reason for ending the contracts, but later – successively, in the process – added more reasons. Besides, the open letter states, the dismissed employees or contributors were replaced by “younger, unexperienced journalists”. The budget cuts, originally cited as reasons for the Deutsche Welle’s measures, had proven untrue, and the Open Letter sees the four as deferred victims of a “campaign” against Zhang Danhong, formerly the Chinese department’s deputy manager, who came under fire in 2008.

This interview may help to shed some light on the events since the “Zhang Danhong” affair, or it may help to start such a process. To date, information is sparse; however, a member of the employees committee confirmed last year that an open letter published by the four former Deutsche Welle employees had described the situation correctly, even if some of its phrasing had been “overboard”.


Q: How long did you work for Deutsche Welle’s Chinese department? Were you a freelancer, or a permanent employee?

A: I began to work for DW as a freelancer in 2001. Beginning from 2002, and until May 2007 I worked there as a so-called permanent freelancer-editor (Fest-Freier Redakteur) with a Freelancer-Contract (Honorarrahmenvertrag) by the Chinese Online Editor-Team of DW. In my function and responsibility there was no difference between me and colleagues with a permanent contract. By the definition made by the director of the whole Online Section at that time, I was the “core-manpower” of the team. From May 2007 to December 31, 2010,  I was an editor with a “permanent contract”. Unfortunatelly, this “permanent contract” was initially limited to December 31, 2010. My current lawsuit with DW centers around the dispute wether or not this time limitation is legal.

Q: What did an ordinary working day look like? What would it involve?

A: My career at DW was clearly divided into two phases, and it may sound somewhat like black humor, if I say the dividing line was the Olympic Games in Peking, in 2008. For most employees of the Chinese Deutsche-Welle department, this event was the beginning of a nightmare which is still ongoing today.

In the time before December 2008, I was an editor in the Chinese Online Edition-Team, and my daily work was just the same as the most editors in a free western press organisation. Within the daily routine practice, I usually took two main roles: the duty editor (Chef-vom-Dienst) and a normal editor or reporter. As a duty editor, my responsibility was to work out the daily working schedule (agenda setting), such as the topics of the day, about assigning different tasks, etc.. A duty-editor’s day usually ended with the planned topics being covered and coming up on our homepage. Overall, there were four or five colleagues who belonged to the “core-manpower” of the Chinese Online team and they took turns weekly, to act as a duty editors. During the weeks when I didn’t work as an editor on duty, I did inqiries on assigned topics or issues, did interviews, and wrote my stories based on former research and interviews. The final work was to publish the finished story on our homepage through the content-management-system. This Chinese Online team was small but comprehensive, with the topics-coverage ranging from current world affairs to specific political, economic, cultural and sports issues. Our journalistic output was  usually in Chinese language, and in case that our expertise in issues relating to China was needed by our colleagues of other language-teams, we also wrote in German or English.

From December 2008, with the so-called “Zhang Danhong-Affair” ending with the removal of the head of the Chinese Radio Programm of DW, Matthias von Hein, the Online-Team and the Radio programme began to work as a whole Chinese Programm. This merger of the daily routines came much earlier than originally scheduled, although the merger itself was already going on. Since 2007, Deutsche Welle had been trying to undergo a structrual reform aiming at turning the traditional radio-based broadcaster into an internet-based new media platform. The reform  started with German and English language-programms as pilots and the other programmes – around 30 different languages – were to follow with different time-schedules respectively. The fact that reform put online and radio programs in a competitive situation did matter a lot, as could be seen in the Chinese Programm of Deutsche Welle.

From late December 2008 to December 2009, the head of Asian radio programme, Ms. Golte, acted as the temporary head of the merged Chinese programme. From the first day after the merger, I was silently excluded from the routine responsibilities of a normal editor and was allowed only to layout the hompage for several months. Although later I was allowed to adapt mainly radio manuscripts from the Central Programm in the German language, I, together with all other colleagues from former online-team, continued to be marginalised. We were not allowed to do tasks such as topic-planning and final editing. Effectively, I and other former online-colleagues lost the identities of autonomous journalists, for we had no say in setting topics, and our articles, if any, were subject to the judgement of the final-editor, who, under the offical excuse of quality assurance, often killed a whole text, or passages or sentences that might be “politically not correct”. Of course the DW functionaries would never acknowledge that this practice existed.

In December 2009, Mrs. Woltersdorf took over the Chinese Program and she indeed brought about some changes. Around April or May 2009, we, the former online editors, were allowed to plan topics and to be final editors in rotational turn. Since then, a normal working day typically began with a meeting and each colleague was to present a brief  “media scanning”, telling what they had read from competitors like VOA, BBC, Radio France or Radio Free Asia. The weekly topic-planner has the final say regarding which topic should be covered and which topic will then be assigned to whom. For the Chinese programme still has a one-hour broadcast, for each topic-assignment they usually first work out a radio manuscript suitable a for a maximum duration of 5 minutes as a radio-piece, typically including the so-called original soundtracks usually cut from a short telephone-interview. Theorectically they should then rewrite the radio manuscript into an online text, but practically, the texts published in the webpages of the Chinese programme hardly differ from a radio manuscript. Until today, a large part of non-China related topics seen or heard from the Chinese program are still translated texts delivered by the central editorial department.

Q: You said that the radio and online services had been put into a competitive situation by their merger. That is to say, there was competition between the editors, as after the merger, fewer employees would be needed?

A: The reform idea was to shift DW from Radio to an Internet-based multimedia-platform. The fact that the majority of DW journalists are radio journalists caused speculations as to who will dominate the merged teams, radio over online or just the other way round? To ease the fears and rumours, the DW management gave an official assurance that the merger shall not mean job cuts. In case of the Chinese department around 2007, some colleagues from the radio department went to the general program director, with two thick document folders which had been secretely prepared for about half a year, accusing the online team of having offended copy rights. There might be some minor faults regarding the copy right, but the charge was exaggerated, for many of the articles allegedly  violating copy rights were written just by radio. If any mistake of such kind existed, they should have communicated with the online team immediately, but they kept recording such “mistakes” secretely for about half a year.

Q: Hristina Krasteva, in a paper about Deutsche Welle in 2007, described several “types” of concepts journalists at Deutsche Welle held. Page 96 and 98 describe her try to develop a typology. Does it include your own approach as a DW journalist, or how would you describe your own concept of your work there?

A: I believe the types of self-understanding described in this paper is more an ideal typology than a real-world description. I would say my approach was rather a mixture of these types. I think certain journalistic professional standards shall be valid for all these types. I would say, you can define your roll als being a democracy promoter, or as a mediator between cultures, or as the alternative voice, or only an information communicator, all that is fine. But you have to do it in a professional way, i.e. with journalistic prudence, objectivity, well balanced. You should be aware that as a journalist, you have a different role to play, for example, from a member of a human rights organisation. And generally, I should say, even if you are a staunch fan of advocacy journalism, you should know that you won’t achieve your goal if you try to treat your readers or listeners as if you were their moral sermonizer and political savior.

Deutsche Welle has always been having difficulties in defining its unique attributes since the end of the cold war. To this day, there is still great controversy among the journalists of Deutsche Welle, which target listeners or internet users they are working for. The types of journalistic self-identity in the Krasteva paper, e.g. democracy promoter, mediator between cultures, provider of alternative voices are more wishful theoretical concepts than a description of the reality. The German department of Deutsche Welle is still not able to give a satisfactory answer to the question, i.e. in the age of internet and globalisation, why a German expat should be interested in its  radio broadcasts or internet content, as ARD, ZDF or Spiegel are only a mouse-click away, all over the world. Things become far more complicated, if you try to promote democracy in Iran, Russia or China.

On the other hand, the said typology in the Krasteva-paper describes the very need of Deutsche Welle and its journalists to present themselves to the general public in a way that would justify  the around 300 million-euros budget financed by the state.

In a debate about the future of Deutsche Welle, the former federal culture minister Mr. Bernd Neumann, in 2006, would have seen Deutsche Welle as “the voice of Germany as a country with a great cultural history, and one of the greatest exporting nations”. There is a certain similarity as the Chinese authorities are talking about ” soft power”.  But Deutsche Welle, with all its political legacy it has as part of extended public diplomacy can hardly afford to be just a seller of “soft power”. It has to be political. That is why, at least in my opinion, the DW itself prefers to call itself “the voice of human rights”, for this would better legitimise its huge budget needs.

To tell the world that you are the voice of human rights is a simple thing to say, but how you voice human rights in an effective way is an another, subtle thing. Taking all these aspects into account, I myself prefer a pluralistic and balanced approach as for the question what a DW-journalist is supposed to be.

Q: My personal impression of the Chinese programs from early in the 2000s until 2008 – I was only an occasional listener, and my impressions wouldn’t replace some statistics, obviously – was that Deutsche Welle sold Germany as a brand: how many beautiful fountains Aachen had, Germany as a place for foreigners to study, Germany’s leading industries, etc. Is that a traceable perception in your view, or do you view it differently?

A: There has been a cultural approach as regards how DW should present Germany to the world. Nevertheless, politics, international or domestic, has always been dominant in its coverage. However, as far as the Chinese program is concerned, there has been dramatic change indeed, since the latter half of 2008. The dividing line was the so called “Campaign against Zhang Danhong”. The Open Letter by me and three other former colleagues has explained how and why this could happen.

To the end of 2008, as the Chinese program was becoming more and more narrowed and biased in its view about China, many listeners and online users wrote letters to the public email box of Chinese program, complaining about the “China-bashing” approach of Deutsche Welle. Unfortunately, these listeners or users were branded “50-cent-partisans” (Wu Mao Dang) and that email box for reader’s comments was simply shut down. The internal statistics show that the online-user visits of the Chinese program dropped drastically after the beginning of 2009, to the extent that the Chinese program would be almost not relevant to the international press coverage about and its influence in China. The Deutsche Welle’s management would argue that this was because of the Chinese program’s website being blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall. But that is only the tiny part of the truth. In those several years before 2008, the Chinese website of Deutsche Welle had always been blocked in China, but there had still been visits ranging from about 30,000 to 70,000, and at its peak around 10,0000 visits daily. Since 2009, the regular daily visits have been always around two or three thousand. For I left Deutsche Welle at the end of 2010, i don’t know the statistics since early 2011.

In about August 2010, I was asked by Mrs. Woltersdorf to give a short presentation to a group of Chinese visitors to DW. These visitors were young academic professionals taking part in a one-year research program in Germany financed by the “Kanzlerstipendium”, which is given only to a few selected outstanding young scholars. After the official presentation, they expressed openly that the Chinese program is becoming more and more biased and radical toward China and they do not believe that Deutsche Welle coverage about China is objective any more. They said, as young scholars, most of whom have studied in USA or Europe, they do believe in the universal validity of human rights and the need to improve the human-rights-situation in China. What they are dissatisfied with is the way Deutsche Welle does its work. They feel that Deutsche Welle were a platform only for the voices of political dissidents. Indeed, since September 2010, a very active and known Chinese dissident has become an offical editor of the Chinese program. If Deutsche Welle is losing credibility in this share of Chinese young professionals who are supposed to contribute best to the mutal understanding beween Germany and China, how could Deutsche Welle justify its hundreds of millions of public finance?

For me personally, advocacy journalism is not the problem. It is a great problem if you are practicing advocacy journalism but you tell your audience you are neutral and pluralistic. Beiing honest is the first virtue of journalism. In the case of the Chinese department, the very debate about standards of journalism has been impossible after the “Zhang Danhong affair”.

Q: It’s certainly speculation to guess how online statistics would develop if the Welle took the approach you recommend – but let me speculate anyway, for a moment. Let’s suppose the Welle takes this approach: advocating human rights, becoming very explicit about human rights violations in China at times, and maybe this, too, would offend many Chinese listeners. This would – if my guesswork is correct – still spell rather reduced traffic on the Welle’s Chinese website. But you can’t make traffic the only criterion, can you? Isn’t there a risk of losing your own way as a broadcaster, if you keep toning down your message until the audience is satisfied?

A: I really love this question! For this is the question we, the former online colleagues, have discussed a thousand times! We are usually already one step closer to an answer if we have raised the question. The problem of the Chinese department since the later months of 2008 has been that you risk your “political correctness” if you dare to ask which appoach serves the goal of DW better.

Furthermore I think we shall distinguish advocacy journalism from advocacy of human rights. To say that I am not a fan of advocacy journalism is not to say I am against advocating human rights. That is a big difference. This is rather a question of the path to goal, not the goal itself.

I don’t doubt that DW has a mission to advocate human rights, comparable to the so-called value-oriented foreign policy of the federal government of Germany. But does it necessarily mean that you must do this by not caring about your website traffic anymore?  If you have zero traffic, how could you then promote your great values?
I think that kind of argument is actually based on an unbewared, dangerous presumption, i.e., the general Chinese audience were against human rights and if you try to criticize China for violation of human rights then they shall run away or they shall feel offended.

I myself do maintain a healthy degree of skepticism about any statistical number, especially as the internet is censored in China. What I find ridiculous is the way to work purposefully to target zero traffic. This is something I call the “Persian-paradox”, in some joking way. I was told by a colleague about how the Persian language department of DW has responded to such kinds of questions. The DW management itself is actually much more into increases of website traffic than we the normal editors. Anyway at least no department has been criticized when web traffic increased. The Persian online department was the late-comer in comparison to other five online pilot-language departments, i.e. German, English, Chinese, Russian and Arabic. The Persian online team should have to face the question about the need for their existence if they should keep their site visit numbers at a very low level. During the protest wave around 2009 in Iran, they firstly achieved a relatively high record of visits, but this should have made them feel uneasy. And days later the Persian website of DW was blocked in Iran and they should have felt a great release by telling around in House of DW the good news:  “we are also blocked!”

I cannot tell if the story is true. But i do believe, be it just a fiction, it can best illustrate the dilemma or paradox of DW. I guess the logic behind this should be: If you are not blocked yet, you are not sufficiently politically correct. The compulsory logical conclusion out of this state of mind is a clear one: The DW [outlets] can [only be proved]*) morally good enough by zero traffic from their target-countries. The DW can be only morally good enough by zero traffic from their target-countries. Isn’t this a new form of cold-war mindset? Shall DW be satisfied with the role als a monologue-talker?

I am not saying I have a ready better solution to this conflict of goals. What I want is a corporate climate that encourages such discussions, but instead the opposite has been the case at DW. It is a too-easy , lazy and self-cheating way to be contended with talking the flowery phrases of human rights and then sit back saying: Look, we are blocked by the Chinese goverment and we are therefore very successful!

You don’t have to be blocked to promote human rights. And if you are blocked just because of your promoting human rights, you still have many many ways to reach your target audience, who themselves are not anti-human-rights at all.

Q: Press coverage of China became much more critical around 2008, including some pretty low points – I remember this title story illustration by German news magazine Der Spiegel, in August 2007. Did you feel some kind of cold wind blowing before that? If so, what did it involve? And did the Chinese department or the Deutsche Welle management receive protest letters from Chinese dissidents, or others? Did the signatories to the open letter to the German Bundestag – their open letter was dated September 9, 2008, some indications of the content in English here – contact Deutsche Welle, before writing to Parliament – or were you aware of such contacts with your department, or the management?

A: As a journalist I follow the German press coverage of China regularly, and I was not surprised to find that it became more critical. The mainstream German press has always been seeing China either as a brutal violator of human rights or a newly, fast rising economic giant. In my opinion, more than just a few German field correspondents in China have not been able to really understand what has been going on in China. There could be many reasons for that. But one thing is true: You cannot understand China as a whole if you do not look at the things carefully between the two extreme poles.

Given that the Deutsche Welle management is usually – at least as far as the Chinese programme is concerned -, not open and transparent in dealing with critics of any kind, I don’t know if they had received protest letters before and during the heated campaign against Mrs. Zhang Danhong. I guess they did. But I do know something about the open letter to the German Bundestag by the  several Chinese dissidents in Germany. As far as I know, they have not tried to contact the Deutsche Welle management. If I’m not mistaken, they have written two open letters, with the latter one directly to the German Bundestag. As the first open letter or something like that became public, I called one of the signatories immediately. For I had been the editor-in-chief of the Chinese dissident-newspaper in Germany (now named as European Chinese Post) for about 8 years, I know the majority of these signatories very well, personally. In this phone-call lasting several hours I tried in a very detailed way to explain how the Chinese program has been working and why the general charge against the staff of Chinese program for their alleged affinity to the CP-China is absolutely nonsense. Unfortunately, the next day, I heard they still sent the open letter to the Bundestag. To me, it was above all a great personal dissapointment.

This small group of dissidents is apparently enjoying labeling other people communist. As they themselves disagreed as to who should represent the group to attend a hearing about the Chinese program in the Bundestag, one signatory, on the internet, branded another signatory as the 6th column of CP-China, and the other slapped the other one’s face as they met each other during the Bookfair in Frankfurt in early 2010!

Q: An examination acquitted the Chinese department, dismissed the 2008 open letter’s allegations, and criticized Deutsche Welle’s director Erik Bettermann for acting prematurely by suspending Zhang Danhong.
You stated in your open letter that basically, Mrs. Zhang had only rated China’s human rights performance in a way Georg Blume of Die Zeit (a major German weekly) – this may refer to this article by Mr. Blume.
However, in an interview with Deutschlandfunk in August 2008, she also seemed to compare censorship of Free-Tibet or Falun Gong websites in China with censorship of extreme-right and child pornography in Germany. That was gross, wasn’t it? Did it influence the decision to suspend Mrs. Zhang from working at the microphone, or was that an allegation which came in later – i. e. faultseeking to justify the decision ex post?

A: Censorship in China is certainly quite a different dimension and nature from that of extreme-right or child pornography. I don’t think Mrs. Zhang Danhong wanted to legitimize Internet censorship in China. Through all the years as I worked together with her and by going through all those interviews which caused her trouble, I have never heard or read that she has given credit to censorship in China.

It is not fair to single out one sentence from the whole context in which Mrs. Zhang Danhong made those statements. Under that special circumstances, around Beijing Olympics 2008,  whereas mainstream western press coverage of China showered undifferentiated, generalized and simplistically condemning criticism over China, a journalist like Mrs. Zhang Danhong, with all her China background knowledge and expertise, would instinctively try to give her own much differentiated judgement and in a certain way she was “forced” into playing the role of defending China, although she had no such intention at all. Around 2008, the western press often seemed to forget the simple fact: “the small people” wanted to host the Olympics and they are not the Chinese government.

After all, the fact is that Mrs. Zhang Danhong was punished because of her speech and this happened in a democracy and in a free media institution who is telling the world everyday that freedom of speech is an integral part of human rights.

Q: To clarify, by saying that Mrs. Zhang was “forced” to play the role of a defendant of China or its government, you mean that the other guest or guests in the talk show were playing exactly the opposite role – a role of criticizing China?

A: Later on Mrs. Zhang Danhong has told some of our colleagues how she felt at those talk-shows and expressed that sort of feeling. I could remember her first TV-talk show by the Maybrit Illner, where she was confonted with a German actor who was very polemic in criticizing China. I have never been at such talk shows but I could imagine how difficult it might be to express oneself unmistakenly and perfectly in foreign language before millions of audience.

Q: The examination report, by Ulrich Wickert, hasn’t been published by Deutsche Welle. What’s known about it was published by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, in March 2009, and what is publicly known about is content (some info in English here) only became known because a journalist with the Süddeutsche went after it. Do you know details of the report which haven’t been published by the Süddeutsche Zeitung?

A: If you consider how profoundly the so called “Zhang Danhong Affair’s” impact on the Chinese public’s perception of Deutsche Welle – and to some extent Germany’s China-policy – has been, it is a dubious thing that the Wickert-report was treated as a highly confidential document by the management of Deutsche Welle. Despite the fact that every journalist of Deutsche Welle is very concerned about what Mr. Wickert said about Mrs. Zhang Danhong and her Chinese colleagues, nobody has ever had the opportunity to see the paper. Fortunately, I got this paper directly from Mr. Wickert’s office. Mr. Wickert has indeed “rehabilitated” the reputation of the Chinese department, damaged by several so-called Chinese dissidents by coming to the very clear conclusion, that it is sheer nonsense to criticize the Chinese journalists of Deutsche Welle by alleging that they had been too friendly to the Chinese government. Mr. Wickert testified that the several thousands of articles he has examined correspond to high professional standards. He also made a very clear statement, i.e., the DW management has treated Mrs. Zhang Danhong wrongfully. I suppose that is why this paper has been kept secret.

Q: According to your open letter of April this year, Bettermann, the managing director, rejected demands that the Chinese department’s work should be monitored by specialists chosen by recognized human rights organizations, but complied with the demands in practice. You refer to a sinologist, Jörg M. Rudolph, who monitored your work for half a year – secretly first, and openly later, but without a defined set of standards, or standards that would have been made known to the department, all of the time until at least April this year. The standard he goes by, as far as discernible, would be the extent as to how an article or contribution would be “CCP-friendly”, or not. According to your open letter, the Chinese department’s temporary manager at the time didn’t speak Chinese, and the permanent manager who replaced her in December 2009, Adrienne Woltersdorf,  is not capable of “communicating adequately”, spoken or in writing, with the department – was (or is) Mr. Rudolph monitoring the Chinese department on their behalf? Do you know if he is still working there? Can you give an account of how you became aware of the monitor‘s existence, and of how he and you interacted with each other?

A: Nobody knows if Mr. Rudolph is still monitoring the Chinese department today. Mr. Rudolph took this job at the end of 2009 and monitored the Chinese department continuously until at least April 2011. The management has never told us in a direct, open, honest and transparent manner, to which extent, for what purpose and for whom Mr. Rudolph is doing his monitoring work. It is not honest to tell that Mr. Rudolph is there just to help the department’s temporary manager to understand the Chinese language. As Mrs. Adrienne Woltersdorf, who took over the manager postion in December 2009, promised more transparency and professionality, she could not find any excuse to keep the monitor-reports secret. For a short period of about two months, the daily report from the monitor was emailed to every member of the Chinese department. These available reports revealed what the real role of this monitor was. He has very often classified certain articles or contributions as “CCP-friendly” and criticized the authors as too socialized by the communist system. For example: In one comment to my report about how the Chinese were becoming targets of “Neo-Nazi” attacks in the Mongolian Republic, Mr. Rudolph said people like me, who were socialized in China, should  generally not treat topics related to ethnic conflicts. At first I wrote this report in Chinese language, and as other departments showed great interest in this article, Mrs. Woltersdorf asked me to write one piece in German. Before the German one was finished, the above said judgement by Mr. Rudolph was in the hand of Mrs. Woltersdorf. She then kept my report to herself and didn’t pass  it on to the Central Program Department, who supplies topics of general interests to all language departments in German or English languages. Several days later, I sent my article directly to the editor of Central Program and that editor published this text immediately and called me personally in order to compliment me for a well-done report.

I first became aware of the existence of this monitor in early January 2009 as a picture edited by me was taken offline. That picture shows German chancellor Merkel und Chinese Primier Wen Jiabao walking at different paces at a state-visit welcome ceremony.  My caption was: When could Germany and China walk at a same pace? The picture disappeared without asking for my consent before, and it was an unusual practice. I traced that change back to the decision of Mrs. Golte, the temporary manager of the Chinese department. I thought it might be some colleague who reported to her, for at that time and thereafter it was quite a common practice that colleagues denunciated each other to the boss. (Chinese would say: Da Xiao Bao Gao  /打小报告) Mrs. Golte told me that a third person from outside has told her that this picture was politically not correct (!). I kept asking who was this “third-person” and got no further answer. About several months later, as Mrs. Golte said at a department meeting that she values transparency very much, I asked her if she could tell us who is this third person. She had no other choice than revealing the existence of this monitor.

There has not been any direct interactive exchange of ideas between the monitor and the monitored. One single personal meeting happened around later 2009 as Mr.Rudolph showed up in the Chinese department for about 15 Minutes.

Mrs. Woltersdorf is supposed to have a comprehensive knowledge of Chinese language and there should have been no official reason for the need of this monitor, but Mr. Ruldoph has apparently outlived Mrs. Wolterdorf. Mrs. Woltersdorf was forced (officially speaking a free decision, which can hardly be true) to leave the Chinese department in July 2011, but Mr. Ruldolph might be still working there.

Q: She has left Deutsche Welle? Definitely?

A: Mrs. Woltersdorf has definitely left DW. The new chief is the old one – Mr. Matthias von Hein, who took up his office since 1rst January, 2012. How and why this has happened was literally a thriller in real life. I could only say, it was a combination of comedy and tragedy.

Q: When you received your notice, which reasons did Deutsche Welle give for them? And how did the initial and the subsequent reasons differ from each other?

A: Mrs. Woltersdorf, head of Chinese Program since December 2009, told me in a conversation in July 2010 that she had two news to tell me, i.e. a good one and a bad one. I asked her to begin with the bad one. She told me my working contract as a permanent employee would not exceed the official limit to the end of 2010. The good news should be that I would still be a full member of the Chinese program as I would be given a freelance contract. “You should not feel sad, because you may earn even more money that way, continuing to work for Chinese program everyday and as a freelancer.” Mrs. Woltersdorf told me. She said she just had talked personally with Mr. Gramsch, the program-director of Deutsche Welle, and he had decided that, because of the budget-cuts, the Chinese program should cut one permanent postition. “It is a pity that you happen to be the first one whose contract is going to  end in this difficult time. ” Of course, I was not happy with this solution and began to seek to defend my rights by talking with the employee committee, and with the higher-level management of Deutsche Welle. I tried to talk personally with Mr. Gramsch, but this conversation,  which was supposed to be personal and confidential, ended up like a court trial against me, as my very adversary, Mrs. Golte, the head of Asian program, was also present at the talk. The Deutsche Welle management obviously has no intention to hear directly what was actually going on in the Chinese program.

From that time on, DW management has began a series of faultseeking to justify the decision ex post. Mrs. Woltersdorf even refused to sign a memory note of our conversation. In December 2010, as I still believed I could at least continue to work as a freelancer, Mrs. Woltersdorf told me that I was fired, taking effect at the end of 2010. The reason? Mrs. Wolterdorf said to me: “If you do not come to me again with a memory note to be signed, I will tell you the truth: you have made the whole noise in this house!” (“Sie haben den ganzen Krach im Haus gemacht!”)

Until the day I left Deutsche Welle, the management has given me no other official reason than budget-cuts. It might be true that Deutsche Welle as a whole should receive a smaller budget, but the budget for the Chinese program has remained steady so far, if not even increased. Later on in the process of the lawsuit, DW has been trying to invent some fake reasons which are in themselves contradictory. For example, at the local labour court, Deutsche Welle said that I was unable to speak at the microphone. As I presented the court a CD recorded with my broadcasting works, Deutsche Welle said this time in its written defending reply to the regional labor court (Landesarbeitsgericht) that I was unable to live moderate. I suppose the next thing DW would say is that I can’t  sing at the microphone. If i could prove that I could sing, they would again suggest that I still could not sing like Placido Domingo after all.

Q: Did the labor court follow Deutsche Welle‘s reasons, or did they cite different reasons for confirming the station’s decision?

A: For me it was an amazing experience to see how the judge at the local labor court simply neglected any argument based on facts. The judge said that even if the budget was not cut and if I were the best candidate for this job, Deutsche Welle still has the freedom to fire his employee at will. This freedom is the so called “freedom of radio” (Rundfunkfreiheit). But as a learned political scientist, I have my doubts if the freedom of radio station constitutionally overrides the individual basic rights. That is why I am now taking my case to a higher court, which is scheduled to sit on January 23, 2012**).

Q: Have you found work as a journalist again, since – full time or part-time? And if it is OK to ask, what are your feelings about the past three years?

A: Until today I am still trying to find a new job. People of  my age (47) don’t have too many opportunities in the labor market. I have sent hundreds of application letters but I haven’t got a  single invitation for an interview. It was quite a frustrating experience to deal with the employment agency (Agentur für Arbeit). You cannot expect respect and dignity from such social services. I don’t want to go into details because it was very hurting.

Those two years from 2009 to 2010 were an ordeal for me and for several former colleagues who didn’t want to abandon professional standards. Believe it or not, in the Chinese department, the past three years, has been in something like a state of fear. The working conference every morning has become a sort of ritual occasion where some colleagues show how they are anti-China and how they are politically correct. It was offending to experience how people lie and talk big just for fear of losing their jobs!

It sounds like a bad joke but it is real. In the two years after 2008 when I was still in the Chinese department, people turned their heads around several times to make sure that no other one might listen before he or she dared to tell their genuine opinion. The everyday lunch has become a kind of political affair as to the question who walks to the dining hall with whom. One colleague once went to lunch together with me and after lunch she told me that we should not go back together to our office, otherwise people would believe she was allied with a person like me who was in the boss’ bad books. Even when I had already been sacked by Deutsche Welle last year, one former colleague called me and at the end of conversation asked me not to tell other people that she had called me.

What has happened to the Chinese department of DW is first of all a human tragedy.

Q: How has the work of the Chinese department changed since 2008? And – if you have kept listening to the programs once in a while, or reading online – have you seen changes in the programs since you had to leave?

A: Just like what I have described above, since later 2008 the Chinese department has actually been  working not only against the Chinese authorities (doing so is legitimate, of course), but unfortunately also against the majority of its should-be recipients. Unless you equate the Chinese people to the Chinese government or CP-China, as a journalist sticking to a high professional code, you would see this trend as a tragedy of Deutsche Welle. Today, the most normal Chinese people who I personally know associate Deutsche Welle with China-bashing from the West. This is a reputation that Deutsche Welle should not have deserved.

Q: Mr. Wang, thank you very much for this interview.



  *) Correction/update, Jan. 28
**) The hearing has been postponed.


This interview was conducted in English, by an exchange of e-mails.

39 Responses to ““Advocacy Journalism is not the Problem” –”

  1. In a way, the DW China coverage and its perception in the PRC as “China-bashing” is every bit as important as the “CNN controversy” from the point of view within China. There are so many ways to phrase this, think about it, and debate it, but this interview gets us off to a very good start in trying to disentangle the debate.

    It is one thing to critique the CCP for its restrictive media policies, harsh controls on its periphery, etc., but we in the West, presumably, are in control of how we discuss China and are responsible for keeping the channels open and free from fear of auto-destruction. There is much more to say about all of that, but I think you’re on to a significant topic here and I hope this interview sparks some further discussion about the matter.


  2. Fascinating.

    I think we all remember 2008 and the atmosphere of that time – for me it was the idea of PAP men in blue suits marching their way down the very same streets outside my window where, 70 years or more before, Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts had been turned back, that made me determined not to allow them to pass without protest. It felt like a smack in the face of the city of London. I think the people of London treated the torch procession in a correct fashion, but I do understand and agree with the reaction of people at DW against the political interference with their work.

    Foreign broadcasters broadcasting into dictatorships have a strange responsibility. People never listen to them until the regime they live under becomes deeply unpopular and cuts off all over sources of information. At that point, though, as the only source ofthey can gain great influence over opinions in the tyarget nation. The rising of the Polish in Warsaw in 1944, the rising of the Hungarians in 1956, and of the Kurds in 1991, were all encouraged in their beginnings by foreign broadcasts – especially in the case of the Hungarians where it seems that the Hungarian-language section of RFE went rogue.

    If there’s any justice (there isn’t), this interview should receive the widespread attention it deserves.


  3. People never listen to them until the regime they live under becomes deeply unpopular and cuts off all over sources of information.

    I was wondering about a similar question – in a different context – while this interview with Mr. Wang was in progress, Foarp. The public indifference in Germany concerning Deutsche Welle can probably be explained with a general public disinterest in foreign affairs – to some extent. Another bit to make sense of this disinterest might be that the whole affair seems to pose fundamental questions – fundamental enough to be shunned. Adam‘s comment seems to hint at that – something about a responsibility for keeping the channels open and free from fear of auto-destruction. After all, soft power won’t unfold in a climate of fear.

    Mr. Wang’s account of the past three or four years at Deutsche Welle may or may not receive the attention it deserves – half as much attention would be great, too, I believe -, but his preparedness to answer questions is an offer to everyone to address tough questions about our home-grown concepts. Continuous improvement and carelessness are mutually exclusive.


  4. Foarp quotes one of what are probably the central statements in this interview, and added some opinion on his blog. As [my comment] is waiting for approval there, I’ll post my comment here, too:

    I seem to remember that there was talk about taking the BBC‘s Chinese website offline, some two or three years ago, given that it wasn’t accessible from China anyway. I’m not sure how seriously this was discussed then – it was before several big traditional broadcasters reduced their shortwave broadcasts instead, and actually rather emphasized their online platforms -, but I felt back then that even if there is no access to the BBC’s Chinese site (or any foreign broadcaster’s website) from most of China, such a site should continue to exist, to be read by overseas Chinese, and by readers from Hong Kong and Macau.

    It’s important to make high-quality offers. If that’s countered with censorship, so be it. In the eyes of many, Beijing only slaps its own “face” in such a case. (Public diplomacy, in such a case, isn’t win-win, but win-lose, and the gains made by the broadcaster are of course limited.) But there is no alternative to shortwave anyway, in my view. Websites can only be an additional offer. Only shortwave is sufficiently unpredictable. Once in a while, a frequency can be heard clearly here in Europe, but not in China as the target area, and sometimes, it’s just the other way round.

    There is no strength in (listener) numbers, when it comes to China. The number of Chinese who feel the need to listen to foreign sources defines the mission, and that will most probably only be a small number these days.

    As far as that’s concerned, I think my opinion probably differs from Mr. Wang’s, and from yours [i. e. Foarp’s] – maybe fundamentally, maybe only by some shades. I’m not into the Persian paradox myself, either. However, Zhou Derong, one of Deutsche Welle‘s defenders in 2008, also suggested that DW wouldn’t blocked in China if the Chinese department’s critics were right. That would be another Persian paradox, just the other way round.

    As Mr. Wang says, it is legitimate – and it must be possible – to discuss the degree of flexibility which may be called for, and I’m inclined to believe that this hasn’t been possible at Deutsche Welle’s Chinese department during the past three or four years. That’s counter-productive, because you can’t have a dialog without at least listening to what your readers have to say, and without replying to them (which doesn’t necessarily imply that you heed their advice). To allege that journalistic standards may get compromised simply because you discuss issues is about as paranoid as the firewall itself.

    But the degree to which a website is blocked in China says nothing about either its strengths, or about its weaknesses. That would be to suggest that the firewall acted rationally itself. I’d leave the censorship factor out of the account when making programs, but would certainly monitor the censorship activities for other reasons.


  5. “People never listen to them until the regime they live under becomes deeply unpopular and cuts off all over sources of information”

    No wish to compare apples and oranges, but my grandmother told me how she spent the nights in her bed, blanket over her head and the radio, and listened to the BBC’s German broadcasts. But only in 1943 or 1944. Try to imagine desperate Chinese houswifes going to bed with their laptops and reading the Deutsche Welle websites. Hehe.


  6. @Tai De – That’s fair enough. Nobody bothered listening to Lord Haw-Haw (AKA William Joyce, who was hanged for treachery after the war) after ’42. Soldiers might still have listened to Axis Sally, but only for the novelty value and because she sometimes played better music than British Forces radio. When it comes right down to it, ordinarily, no-one just looking to find out what was in the news that day would dream of tuning in to a foreign news service unless they thought it was the only way of getting decent news, and it takes a lot for people to start thinking that that is the case.


  7. A story about Axis Sally here. There was one Axis Sally broadcasting from Berlin (“If your child behaves badly, do you agree with its misbehavior, do you say to yourself, ‘my child, right or wrong'”?), and another from Rome, in the later war years. In two comments, an apparent relative of the latter, Albert Zucca, asserts that Axis Sally II didn’t broadcast comments, but rather sang in front of the microphone.

    History Net:

    Lord Haw Haw’s success as a broadcaster was aided immeasurably by the lack of forthright reporting at the BBC, which featured entertainment programming—largely organ music—and severely censored news broadcasts. The BBC’s disadvantage was compounded as Holland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Belgium, and Norway fell in the spring of 1940, and the Germans appropriated Europe’s most popular and powerful commercial stations. Combined with the huge 100-kilowatt transmitters in the Berlin suburb of Zeesen, the Reichsrundfunk, or Reich Radio, broadcast worldwide 24 hours a day in 12 languages.

    Not sure what was really measurable in those days, though.

    The music on the BBC was usually played on a Wurlitzer organ, by Sandy MacPherson.


  8. I can’t judge about Deutsche Welle as I have not read nor listened to it but only read some of the relevant posts and comments here as well as the open letter.
    If, poor management decisions have indeed rendered DW’s coverage of China blatantly one-sided – and I believe there are more than two sides to many issues – after the Olympics, and if some people welcome this alleged new focus on pro-dissident, anti-CPC points of view, these people might see that focus/bias backfire, at least concerning the Chinese audience. I understand effecting regime change should not be a priority of an institution such as DW, but even if it were, pushing politics and pushing one particular point of view may come over as forced and alienate the target audience.
    North Korean dissidents sending balloons with dollar notes and leaflets pointing out Kim’s obesity probably have been much less effective at instilling a sense of being cheated on by Pyongyang than smuggled soap operas without any political content or general-interest South Korean domestic TV and radio programs have.
    While my comparison is, of course, an exaggeration due to obvious differences in the standard of living between China and NK as well as (I hope) differences between remaining journalistic standards at DW and insults ballooned by North Korean dissidents, there is a sad parallel between DW and South Korean broadcasts: Since one year ago, DW reaches less people than it used to by no longer broadcasting on shortwave, and accessing a website, even if it is not blocked, potentially gets you in trouble. From January 2013, there will be no more analog broadcasts of South Korean TV, depriving their unintentioned North Korean audience of a major source of information about the outside world and their own country and leaving them with only (jammed) radio but no internet to turn to.


  9. I’m no regular listener to Deutsche Welle these days either, JK – once the shortwave frequencies for China are gone, I may not listen at all anymore -, but it seems to me that they have toned their message down somewhat.

    However, declining statistics – if they have kept declining – may not worry them that much – not if you go by Deutsche Welle’s own statements anyway. A farmer in Anhui or even further west isn’t among their target audience any more. [People] who wield influence on a country’s pulbic opinion, or will be influential in the future are. I see your point: someone in a rural area who goes to an internet cafe may be more scared to load “forbidden” websites, while an urban citizen will hardly waste any thoughts about that. (Not to mention the gap in knowing how to circumvent the firewall.)

    But given the new focus, the more anxious or less technically skilled potential audience doesn’t seem to matter. That, of course, doesn’t speak for DW’s own message, re “human rights”. If information is a human right, too, they should take it more seriously – no matter who’s listening.

    As for alienating an audience, I wouldn’t be too worried about that – staying on message is important, too. But to tell an audience that the internet has to be good enough for them (and that most of them don’t really matter anyway) won’t be helpful. This really makes a broadcaster “one among many” – no matter if on its own web pages or as a poster on youku.


  10. Thanks for your reply. Apparently I didn’t read the news properly, I thought DW’s Chinese shortwave was already cancelled rather than just reduced. I agree with you on all points. DW sure has interesting priorities, but they probably wouldn’t be interested in what I think about all this as I’m not an opinion leader.


  11. You are welcome! To be precise, Deutsche Welle will stop broadcasting in Chinese – on shortwave – on December 31. Only Kigali (Rwanda) will remain active on shortwave (for Africa).


  12. Sorry for being off-topic, but here’s good news in case somebody interested in freedom of information has read my comment #8 above: northkoreatech.org quotes Yonhap reporting that South Koreans have agreed “to maintain an analog system for TV transmissions across the border”.


  13. Off-topic? Hardly so! It’s exactly what cross-border broadcasting should be about, in my view. Obviously, German broadcasts for a Chinese audience, for example, need to be explanatory enough to be understood in the target area. But they should show people in the target area the same respect as media do (or should) show a domestic audience or readership. Pretty relevant in the Deutsche-Welle context, I’d say.

    Thanks a lot for the info – and a happy new year to you.



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