[Added:] Book Review: Li Qi’s “Deutsche Welle’s China Nightmare”

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, and that’s true. You get very different comments, depending on the language you use on the internet. I’m realizing that I should have written about Deutsche Welle in German much earlier, say, since 2008. The share of Germans who read English-language blogs is probably much higher than the share of Chinese who do so – because English and German are much more similar to each other than English and Chinese, or because we are culturally closer, etc.. But that doesn’t mean that you can “reach” Germans with English.

That said, you have to find media here who would actually accept posts about Deutsche Welle’s Chinese department. Der Freitag seems to be one.

The following is what I wrote there, in the community section. Think of it as the book review in English I promised on Tuesday.

Public Diplomacy. Qi Li is a German citizen. From 2001 to 2011, he worked at Deutsche Welle. The “expiration of his contract” was a big media topic in China. In Germany, it wasn’t.

When Zhang Danhong, deputy Chinese department manager back then, made controversial remarks about China’s political issues during public appearances more than four years ago, it was well documented by the media. No wonder: 2008 was the year of the Beijing Olympics, and the “China” topic topped the agendas of many German papers and broadcasters.

Not only Zhang’s public-appearance comments, at Kölner Stadtanzeiger (a paper) or Deutschlandfunk (radio) were controversial; Deutsche Welle’s Chinese department became controversial, too. Dissidents who lived in Germany wrote a letter to the German Bundestag (federal parliament) on September 13, 2008:

We believe that Deutsche Welle’s Chinese department – broadcasting mainly in Chinese – is, to a large extent, isolated from German society and functioning like an island. This has led to a striking deviation from Deutsche Welle’s mission statement, to promote democracy and human rights and to explain Germany to the world.

It wasn’t necessarily the first letter from dissidents against an allegedly misguided editorial department. And according to Li Qi, who published his working experience with Deutsche Welle’s Chinese online department (2001 – 2011) last month, it wasn’t that much the open letter written by the dissidents that got Deutsche Welle into hot waters, but a letter by the “Deutscher Autorenkreis” (German authors’ club) ten days later. Li:

I’ve learned through the years that Germans take Germans seriously. The dissidents’ letter didn’t unsettle Deutsche Welle or the Bundestag. They might have been ignored forever, even though many of them have taken German citizenship long ago. And Zhang Danhong, too, was constantly described as “Chinese” by German media, even though that wasn’t correct, in terms of citizenship.

Back then, Deutsche Welle reacted publicly. Zhang Danhong was temporarily suspended from work at the microphone, and lost her position as the Chinese department’s deputy manager. Above all, however, the Chinese department’s work – and that of the online editors in particular – was investigated. A translation agency translated the Chinese articles back into German, and former German ARD (channel-1) correspondent and “Tagesthemen” (a newsshow) editor Ulrich Wickert reviewed them. “You are free to decide about the results. You are completely free in this regard” (Sie entscheiden, was am Ende herauskommt. Sie sind völlig frei), Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Hans Leyendecker quoted Deutsche Welle director Erik Bettermann, months later.

Wickert’s findings: accusations of slanted China coverage were completely unfounded. Wickert didn’t only criticize that politicians had picked up the accusations unchecked, but also that the director, apparently because of public and political pressure … [took personnel decisions] hastily and unjustifiedly. To be clear, this wasn’t about Zhang Danhong’s public-appearance remarks, but about the Chinese editorial department’s work.

Wickert’s report remained unpublished. Different to the original allegations, it gave no rise to headlines. It took an inquiry by the Süddeutsche Zeitung to Bettermann, who reportedly rated Wickert’s report as “very good work – great”. Bettermann didn’t want to publish the report however, so as “not to revive the China debate again”.

When reading Li’s book, you can hardly escape the feeling that Deutsche Welle has been very successful at that.

Four online editors at the China department lost their freelance assignments or jobs respectively, in 2010 and 2011. If and how far the “freelance” assignments amounted to “employee-like” contracts (arbeitnehmerähnlich Beschäftigte), and if and how far the jobs had to count as temporary (befristet) can’t be discussed here. Some of that still seems to be disputed at the labor courts – Wang Fengbo expects his case to be at the federal labor court this month.

More interestingly, Deutsche Welle – despite Wickert’s acquittal – prescribed a “monitor” for the Chinese department, Jörg-Meinhard Rudolph from Ludwigshafen. Officially, he was meant to monitor style and language/expression, and to correct those, if need be. In fact, according to an open letter by the four former employees, he rated how “close” to the CCP (or how distant to it) articles written by the editorial department were.

It was an angry letter, published by the four at the online paper “Neue Rheinische Zeitung” in April 2011, and even just for its length, it was no journalistic masterpiece. But its content is mostly authenticated. Deutsche Welle employees committee member Christian Hoppe, quoted by EPD in May 2011:

Some of the letter’s phrasing had been overboard, said Hoppe, but by and large, the events in the editorial department were described accurately (die Autoren des „offenen Briefs“ seien „mit einigen Formulierungen über das Ziel hinausgeschossen“, würden jedoch “die Vorgänge in der Redaktion insgesamt korrekt wiedergeben”).

According to Li, Wang Fengbo and another colleague met a journalist in Cologne for two hours, in the evening on April 14, 2011. The journalist, himself a freelancer, “wanted to report about it, but didn’t know what his superiors thought” (Li’s account). “In fact, we never heard about a report at his paper.”

But another source did report, as quoted above. Li:

You can’t google the report, though, because it can only be read at “epd medien”. Press agencies like dpa, ap, epd enter their stories into a database. That’s how they make them available to the media.

The book – Li categorizes it as reportage – isn’t above the story. There is bitterness in some of its chapters. But it is a schoolbook for a number of cultural and political issues: “intergration“, suspicions of extremism, public diplomacy (and how it shoots itself in the foot, “politically”), journalism, labor law, and – one begins to suspect – about the despair of superiors who have to execute an agenda which can’t be plausibly explained to any reasonable contemporary.

Not least: about how a public institution (apparently) got into the eddying of a parallel society. That “parallel society” isn’t malign in the way rednecks would have it. It isn’t malign at all. But politics faces it without a clue, unprepared and sort of trigger-happy.

While the Chinese press reported – and someties raged – extensively, there was almost no German coverage. “Is the topic of no interest for German media?”, Li asks towards the end of his book. It’s not only him – Wang Fengbo, too, finds that hard to believe.

They aren’t Eva Herman or Susan Stahnke, obviously. Deutsche Welle may only be known to those Germans who, into the 1990s, took their shortwave receivers to Mallorca, or before travelling the world. But when it is about good journalism – at a public broadcaster (or a public media platform), public interest seems likely. And if one is inclined to believe that a number of Deutsche-Welle employees were wronged, this poses questions about the usual practice in our media: how well (or badly) do we actually want to be informed?

Li Qi: “China-Albtraum der Deutschen Welle”, August-von-Goethe Literaturverlag, Frankfurt a/M, 2012.
Only available in German.

4 Responses to “[Added:] Book Review: Li Qi’s “Deutsche Welle’s China Nightmare””

  1. Wittgenstein: Soon after moving to Cambridge he was asked if he had any culinary preferences.

    “I don’t mind as long as it is the same thing everyday”.

    Like

  2. Acting innocent, King Tubby? After trying to subvert feudal power?

    Like

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