Anonymous, via New America Media
— I live in dread that the Chinese government will find out our true identities. Even my parents do not know what I am doing.
For the past few years, I have worked by day in the California criminal justice system and by night editing Free More News, a news blog that defies Chinese censors. Since we are based in the United States, we have the freedom to publish as we please. Chinese journalists do not. They face censorship on a daily basis. Many times a good story cannot be published due to its content—coverage of protests, food safety problems, ethnic strife—so we became the outlet for those stories.
It has not been easy. Many times when a big story came out, our accounts suspiciously began sending out phishing emails. Police have visited a half dozen of our China-based interns and interrogated them about Free More News, asking who we are and about our source of funding.
Despite the challenges, we work on Free More News because we believe the world needs to know more about China, and Chinese citizens need to know more about what is going on in their communities. Pollution is becoming unbearable; the sun is no longer clearly visible due to the heavy smog. The wealth gap is increasing. And without people’s participation, much of China’s development has been hijacked by special interest groups that are more interested in padding their own pockets. These crucial stories rarely make the state-controlled Chinese media.
The price of being denied news about your country is something I know personally. I was only a little boy on the morning of June 4, 1989, but I will never forget the urgency in my father’s voice as he shared the shocking news about Tiananmen Square with relatives: “The government fired shots!”
For weeks leading up to that day, there had been a rare break in the government control of media. Stations had been broadcasting daily the student protests at Tiananmen Square. We sat glued to the television, watching demonstrations, hunger strikes, martial law—and then this dramatic ending.
After the shots were fired, the government took back control of the media. For years, I had no idea what happened to those students, what their motives were, or who they were. We would hear about people getting arrested or being executed as counter revolutionaries, but we never heard their side of the story.
Only later, when I moved to the United States for a university education, did I begin to see the full picture of what had happened and how my country had developed in the more than a decade since the crackdown following the Tiananmen uprising.
When I was about to graduate with a degree in economics and political science, some Chinese friends and I wanted to find a way to use our new knowledge to help our homeland. We decided to create a website and call it Free More News, which, in Chinese, is written with a character that translates to something like “a little more liberty.”
Our initial idea was to share knowledge of democracy, but the blog took on a life of its own. Using a simple WordPress platform, we started to update the site before and after our day jobs with the latest news we could find about China. A month after we launched in fall 2007, protests broke out in Shenyang and Guizhou provinces that involved business and police corruption. The official media clamped down on the story, but the Chinese people had started using social platforms to document their lives, sharing protest footage on YouTube, Flickr, and Chinese forums such as TianYa. Information was being shared faster than the government could respond. We took these stories and posted them. We had stumbled upon an information gold mine. Our website crashed with tens of thousands viewing the site at once, about 80 percent of whom came from China.
But the success was short lived. Within months of launching, the Chinese government had discovered what we were doing and blacklisted the website so nobody could access it directly from China. For two years we continued the site, but with our main audience blocked we had very little traffic.
Despite the frustrations of being cut off from our audience, we continued to develop the site. Along the way we learned about journalistic practices from trial and error. When we posted photos from Tibet where it appeared Chinese military officials were attempting to infiltrate the monks, we learned the photo was for a movie shoot. From that point on we made sure to verify everything we published. If there is a protest, for example, we confirm the veracity of the images by checking with other local contacts to make sure that the event actually happened.
In 2009, I went back to China for a visit and a friend tipped me off about Twitter: It was taking off in China and not yet blocked. Immediately, we opened an account and started posting images, links, and short updates. Right after we started, there were protests. This time they were in Xinjiang and involved an ethnic clash between Chinese Muslims and the Han majority. We found information on forums the censors had not yet suppressed. We acted fast to save photos and then send them out on Twitter. Again, the traffic took off, with followers doubling every couple of weeks. On Twitter they have grown toalmost 50,000, and on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, we got to over 20,000 in just a couple of months—but then the government shut us down.
We soon found that we could also use our social network to build a dedicated team of sources on the ground in China. When residents of Da Lian planned to protest the construction of a chemical plant, claiming potential environmental and health risks, we contacted our local contributors and designed a coverage plan. On the day of the protest, we had photos, videos and micro-reports from different angles on the ground. The Telegraph and Current TV even asked us to connect them with people to interview.
With a large population and economy, China’s future is crucial for the world. We at Free More News want to be the force to help outsiders better understand China. For now, our model is limited in that the entire budget comes from its editors’ day jobs. With a meager budget and a small team, Free More News is only able to maintain its current operation—no growth or expansion.
Yet we have big dreams. We want to take lessons from online and investigative journalism successes in the United States and apply them to China. We want to bring China’s data onto the world stage, modeling after Texas Tribune and ProPublica. Free More News will show a China that outsiders have not seen.
Last summer we launched an English-language version to broaden our reach and let more people know what is happening on the ground in China. We truly believe China will change in the next decade. We are working to help facilitate that change, pushing for a free press. Once that happens, as a growing media presence with comprehensive, quality coverage, Free More News will tell the real story of China’s development.
The author, an editor at Free More News, asked to remain anonymous because he was afraid that if the Chinese government discovered his identity he would be unable to continue to produce the blog.