Skip to navigationSkip to content

A reporter blocked from leaving China to accept a prize says his craft is despicable—and noble

EPA/Alex Hofford
Yang Jisheng in 2009.
By Zheping Huang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Veteran Chinese journalist and historian Yang Jisheng exposed the massive death toll of China’s Great Famine, and how Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong’s policies created it, in his 2008 book Tombstone. For his “conscience and integrity in journalism,”  Yang, 75, was awarded the prestigious Louis M. Lyons Award by Harvard University’s Nieman foundation last December.

But the award ceremony was held Thursday (Mar. 10) evening without him. A retired reporter with the Xinhua state news agency, Yang was banned from traveling to the US. “We note that the limit on Mr. Yang’s travel and public attacks on his journalistic record only serve to further highlight the importance of his investigative work,” the organizers said in a statement to Quartz.

China is notorious for its tight restrictions on freedom of the press, as the ruling Communist Party sees media as a tool that serves its own interests. Yang’s work, often considered the most authoritative account of the Great Famine, meticulously documented the root causes of the tragedy, its widespread effects, and the Party’s systematic efforts to cover up the disaster, as Quartz has reported. Yang estimated the Great Famine killed over 36 million from 1958 to 1962. The book is still banned in mainland China.

In a prepared speech that was read at the ceremony, Yang said he investigated the famine’s history because “I want people to remember manmade disaster, darkness” and to distance themselves from them. Journalism as a profession can either be “despicable” or “noble,” “mundane” or “sacred,” “shallow” or ”profound,” “comfortable” or “perilous.”

“All of this is left to the journalist to discern,” he wrote.

Here’s the full text of his speech:

I thank the Nieman class of 2016 for giving me the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. I feel overwhelmed by the weight of the words “conscience” and “integrity,” but they serve to encourage and spur me on.

The Nieman fellows are all distinguished journalists. I fervently love the profession of journalism. After more than forty years of being tempered in this position, and based on my experience and observation, this is how I evaluate journalism as a profession:

This is a despicable profession that can confuse right and wrong, reverse black and white, manufacture monstrous falsehoods and dupe an audience of millions.

This is a noble profession that can point out the ills of our times, uncover the darkness, castigate evil, advocate for the people and take on the responsibility of social conscience.

This is a banal profession that evades conflict, ignores questions of right or wrong, plays it safe and willingly serves as a mouthpiece of the powerful.

This is a sacred profession that cherishes all under heaven, contemplates eternal questions, criticizes the political situation, monitors the government, communicates with society and makes the news media the Fourth Estate.

This is a shallow profession that anyone can take on, requiring only the ability to write a coherent narrative and a minimum of knowledge, demanding no brilliant insights but only obedience and submission.

This is an unfathomable profession; while journalists are not scholars, they’re required to study and gain a comprehensive grasp of society. Any journalist, no matter how erudite and insightful, will feel unequal to the task of decoding this complex and ever-changing society.

This is a safe and comfortable profession that gives journalists access to palace balconies and the corridors of power, that lets them attend lavish receptions and gala celebrations, interview important officials and meet the rich and famous, ride the crest of success and enjoy limitless fame. Journalists can barter their essays and influence into positions of power and wealth.

This is a difficult and dangerous profession. Quite apart from war correspondents who spend their time dodging hails of bullets, even in a peacetime, investigating and searching for the truth involves arduous journeys and immense obstacles in the war against tyranny and evil. A journalist who touches a sore spot of the power establishment brings disaster upon his or her head.

This is a profession that is despicable and noble, banal and sacred, shallow and profound, all depending on the conscience, character and values of the individual journalist. The truly professional journalist will choose the noble, sacred, profound and perilous, and remain aloof from the despicable, mundane, shallow and comfortable.

But there is no chasm, wall or pathway that demarcates the despicable from the noble or the banal from the sacred; all of this is left to the journalist to discern. A journalist who takes the pathway of darkness will be nailed to history’s pillar of shame, his own words used as indelible evidence against him. “Debasement is the password of the base, Nobility the epitaph of the noble.” This mordant credo, very much in vogue in the journalistic profession, can make a journalist veer onto the road of dishonor unless he forges on toward heroic self-sacrifice.

This is my understanding of conscience and integrity in journalism.

Insisting on being a journalist with conscience and integrity carries risks. When giving a lecture to a class of journalism students, I passed along a tip for avoiding danger: “Ask for nothing and fear nothing, and position yourself between heaven and earth.” By asking for nothing I mean not hoping for promotion or wealth; by fearing nothing I mean examining one’s own behavior and not exposing a “pigtail” for anyone to grab. Don’t rely on the powerful, but rather on your own character and professional independence. These three methods greatly reduce risk.

Since China embarked on Reform and Opening, many journalists of conscience and integrity have emerged. In the face of enormous impediments they’ve reported the truth, chastised evil and moved Chinese society forward. They aren’t attending this ceremony tonight, but they should share in its honor.

I’ve retired now and can no longer work as a journalist, so I write historical works as a “journalist of past events.” Yesterday’s news is today’s history. What news and history have in common is that both must be true and credible. Credibility is the lifeblood of both news and history. China’s historians have always put an emphasis on the ethics of history: fidelity to unvarnished historical fact, both positive and negative. Every age has included historians who consider it their responsibility to provide an honest record, and who consider distortion a disgrace. Many historians have preserved their moral integrity at the cost of their lives. Influenced by the spirit of China’s historians, I’ve recorded major events that I personally experienced: the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, Reform and Opening. We must remember not only the good things, but also the bad; not only the brightness, but also the darkness. I want people to remember man-made disaster, darkness and evil so they will distance themselves from man-made disaster, darkness and evil from now on.

My book Tombstone recorded a horrific man-made disaster that lasted for several years. Although it could only be published in Hong Kong and remains banned in China, truth-loving people have found various means and channels to distribute it throughout mainland China. Pirated editions of Tombstone are being sold from the hinterlands of the Central Plains to the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau to the Xinjiang frontier. I’ve received letters from readers all over China expressing their fervent and unwavering support. This shows the power of truth to break through the bronze walls and iron ramparts constructed by the government.

Fact is a powerful bomb that blasts lies to smithereens. Fact is a beacon in the night that lights the road of progress. Fact is the touchstone of truth; there can be no truth without facts.

Journalists are the recorders, excavators and defenders of truth.

Finally I would like to join with all of you in this prayer for the journalistic profession: May the sunlight of conscience and integrity shine upon the desks of all journalists and writers. May more works be published that awaken the conscience of humanity and allow the light of justice to shine on every corner of the earth.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.