Aus film-TV directors want digital/cyberspace coverage

Australia’s film and television directors are looking to set base rates of pay and to set standardised working conditions by registering a new guild under the national Fair Work laws.
The application to register the Australian Directors Guild Limited is also looking to the future in how to handle negotiations and coverage in the fast-developing world of digital and online media.
The original version of the Guild was established in 1982 and it had a name change in 2007. But these earlier bodies were not registered as an industrial organisation, as done for trade unions and some employer groups.
The Guild’s executive director, Kingston Anderson, said that most of its 200 members worked in television and were mostly paid above recommended minimum rates, meaning that directors’ pay would still mostly be negotiated individually.
“Obviously some directors have more power than others,” Anderson said. “We don’t seek to negotiate or represent Baz Luhrmann, that’s not necessary.”
The guild wanted to focus on developing industry-wide conditions in standard contracts. “At the moment, no two contracts seem to be the same … it’s really a hotch potch and an uneven playing field. It’s just an enormous waste of everyone’s time.”
Screen Producers Australia (SPA) has negotiated common law agreements for cast and crew which are above the basic pay and conditions set by the Broadcasting and Recorded Entertainment Award 2010.
Anderson argued that standard conditions for directors would benefit producers as well as his members. “We’ve always had good relations with SPA and that shouldn’t change.”
However, the application to register the guild with the Fair Work Commission show their a wide variety of directors would eligible to become members, which could raise some employer concerns in largely non-unionised areas such as new media and advertising.
Membership would be open to directors working in film, video, digital media and technologies, television, arts and entertainment,
music clips, animation, commercial advertising and similar industries.
The president of the new guild is Ray Argall. The four divisional vice-presidents are (feature films) Nadia Tass, (television drama and comedy) Samantha Lang, (documentaries) Rebecca Barry and (new media) Michela Ledwidge.
The secretary is Stephen Wallace and the treasurer is Donald Crombie.

POSTSCRIPT: I liked Ray Argall’s 1990 film, Return Home. And he was cinematographer on other films I liked such as Wrong World, The Prisoner of St Petersberg and The Plains of Heaven.

Chinese paper chase goes digital

I was sipping a jasmine tea during a discussion at the All-China Journalists Association late last year when a comment caused me to splutter into my tea cup.
Indeed, I broke one of my primary rules of journalism – shut up and let the other person speak!
I’d just heard that the People’s Daily had put one particular news outlet under the microscope in order to dig deeper into Australia’s attitudes towards China. That outlet was The Australian newspaper.
As a former writer for the rival Fairfax stable, I was unable to button my lip and observed that “The Oz” was not necessarily the best benchmark, particularly if it was the only one selected.  But I reflected that the decision to select The Oz was understandable because – like it or not – it is influential.
And I shut up and listened, along with other Australian journalists visiting China in an exchange organised by the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre. The comments which caused the spluttering were made by Ren Yan, the chief editor, international news department, of the People’s Daily, to a visiting group of Australian journalists during a dialogue (link to report by Richard Davis of SBS) at the ACJA’s headquarters in Beijing on November 26.

Newsroom floor, Xinhua news agency
Newsroom floor, Xinhua news agency

Speaking through an interpreter, Ren explained that while The Australian did not have the largest circulation, it was “very influential and it is representing the mainstream ideas in Australia.”
Ren added that State-run media like the People’s Daily were an “official or government mouthpiece so the readers don’t have that much impact on how they choose to report.”
It was different with the Australian media, which faced pressure to reflect their readership. “Taking The Australian for an example, because they have such negative reports on China, we want to take a picture or profile of the readers because they must have a negative picture of China.”
Ren concluded: “China is not a threat to any other countries, especially a country like Australia. Why would it have such views? For the media in Australia … we encourage more of taking the social responsibility and to lead news reports on the positive point of view because we have always been trying to keep the balance between social responsibilities of the media and the freedom of speech.”
The comments were interpreted as being a broader reflection on the Australian media rather than simply being about “The Oz”, although the paper is a strong supporter of the US alliance.
They also reflect a basic difference between the way media works in the two countries. In China, the Department of Domestic Affairs promotes training of journalists by “heightening their ability to guide the public opinion in the correct direction”. The Department includes an “Office of Self-Discipline” and all registered Chinese journalists have recently had to take a refresher course in Marxism. The All-China Journalists Association is essentially part of the State/Chinese Communist Party.
More leeway is given to reporting environmental problems, like pollution, which can hardly be denied. Reporting corruption is more problematic, as shown by the case of reporter Chen Yongzhou, who investigated alleged financial misdeeds of a state-owned construction company. His employer, the New Express, published two front page appeals for him to be released but he later confessed on television to having accept bribes, which was greeted by much scepticism.
The Australian’s Rowan Callick detailed in his book “Party Time”, how China’s central propaganda department sends all editors of print, broadcast and internet media lists of what topics they are permitted to cover. Publications have to be licenced and self censorship is a problem because individual journalists can lose their press cards. Newer media outfits like Caixin, Caijin and the Southern Metropolis Daily break many stories and then follow them up.         But controversial topics are often left for the official Xinhua news agency and the CNBC television network to set the tone. Xinhua both reports the news and announces it on behalf of the government, while gathering overseas news for intern government consumption. It employes about 12,000 journalists worldwide,  with several thousand based in its Beijing headquarters. “Our salaries are not very high,” said one Xinhua staffer. “But it’s a very  stable place. There is a subsidised gym and restaurant. If you don’t make huge mistakes you will not be fired.”

No hot desking at Xinhua ?
No hot desking at Xinhua ?

Much of the media action is online where Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, has more than 500 million users. A galaxy of home grown internet stars have emerged with up to 54 million followers each.
Since last year, users are supposed to register under their real names and there strong restrictions on spreading “false rumours” online. Thousands of “net police” use specialist search engines and filters to “clean” the internet. A kind of perpetual hide-and-seek is underway in cyberspace, and activists claim they can create “mirror sites” to circumvent an official blockade of foreign news sites like the Wall Street Journal and Reuters Chinese-language websites.
Mandarin speakers say that the many millions of Chinese “netizens” often use code words to comment on events in a way that is indirect but widely understood. Netizens can sometimes force changes on officialdom, like the blocking of controversial chemical plant.
Along with this “Great Firewall of China”, the government is taking a hard line against overseas news organisations, like the New York Times and Bloomberg, for investigating the private wealth of Chinese leaders.
An economist who specialises in the media, John Gong, of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, believes that state-run outfits will struggle to compete with private media operators like Baidu, a Chinese-language-search engine, and Tencent, an internet portal and message service. Gong argues that most newspapers are still profitable but that online advertising is developing fast. “Advertising in newspapers used to be very easy … it was a supplier’s market, companies had to go to newspapers and beg for them to run their advertisements.”
“If you want to study the private sector in China, the internet business is a great example. It’s mostly dominated by private companies. Media outlets that are controlled by the government are also starting their own digital versions in response to this. But I don’t think they are doing it very successfully. They are trying to catch up and they very concerned and worried about the revenues they are losing to the new competitors who are privately owned.”

Take Shanghai’s Jiefang Daily newspaper, which is owned by the municipal Communist party. The corridors of its headquarters are lined with memorabilia – a sample of Chairman Mao’s famous calligraphy, a snap of Deng Xiaoping with a copy of the paper on his desk, visitors like the UN chief Ban Ki Moon and basketballer Yao Ming. There is also a draft report from the 1950s with handwritten corrections by Chou En Lai who – by the look of it – would have been an implacable sub-editor.
But Jiefang is not what it was. Back in 1988, it reportedly about a daily circulation of about 880,000 copies and a version printed on silk was sent into space. The main paper has 12 pages with full colour and has a circulation of just 112,000, although it many offshoots and sister publications.
In a lament that is familiar in newspapers everywhere, Jiefang’s chief editor, Chen Songqing, said that people still wanted to read news, but increasingly choose a digital format. “I have a very strong feeling that the young people’s desire [in China] for the internet is much stronger than in other countries, Therefore, we gave a much more difficult environment.”

The fashion room
The fashion room

Jiefang has the usual open-plan newsroom, plus a series of meeting rooms in different themes — a “fashion room” that aims for a funky brainstorming vibe and a ‘‘civilisation room” with a calligraphic theme. But a 200-seat lecture theatre indicates that some of the didactic spirit shown by Chou En Lai’s corrections live on.
More interesting is its growing “New Media” operation.

Digital designer You Chunjie explains a point to translator Jessica Li
Digital designer You Chunjie explains a point to translator Jessica Li

A younger and hipper crew work on a mobile phone application, under a deal with several telecommunications companies. The competition is fierce because multiple telcos provide news/infotainment, and Jiefang’s monthly subscription rate is just 5 yuan a month or about $A1 dollar. Still, they claim about 3 million subscribers who are mostly young and white collar. The digital operations also deliver through hundreds of touch screens that are located at key points in Shanghai’s many train lines. They operate like iPads, allowing a browser to flick through the pages.
Since that visit, Jiefang has closed one of its sister papers, The Shanghai Evening Post.

Into China’s (mid) West

City of bridges and mists
City of bridges and mists

Tourist guides in one of China’s fastest-growing cities, Chongqing, sometimes insist that their metropolis on the upper reaches of the Yangste River does not have a pollution problem.

They assert that Chongqing (which is pronounced as Chong-ching) has long been famous for its mist and fog, while also being known as a city of bridges.

Still, recent visitors might beg to differ with the “no smog in Chongqing” argument. Touching down at the city’s airport in mid-November brought fifteen big construction cranes hazily into view — through the mist, as it were — before this visitor lost count.

One thing soon became clear, though — the Chongqing economy is pumping. There is a curious sensation that, if you stood still for long enough, you could see buildings being pulled down or thrown up without the need for time-lapse photography.

The growth of inland centres has been promoted as part of the Chinese government’s “Go West” policy of attracting manufacturing and development inland. Wages in coastal regions like Guangdong and greater Shanghai have risen, partly due to strikes in 2010 at the likes of Foxconn, which supplies parts for the Apple stable of products.

The coastal economies are now shifting higher up the value chain into advanced products such as semi-conductors for computers rather than stocking fillers for Christmas. The manufacturing hot spots have shifted inland to places like Chongqing, where labour is still cheap and plentiful.

The industrial lineup in Chongqing includes cars and motorcycles (some 9 million a year), steel, aluminium, glass and chemicals. They make masses of TV sets and host IT majors like HP, Acer, Toshiba and Cisco and some 700 components makers who last year produced about 42 million laptops.

On the tourism front, Sichuan Airlines has started twice weekly services direct between Sydney and Chongqing and the authorities hope that plans to allow three-day stays without a visa will boost visitor numbers.  The Sichuan cooking is a treat for those who like it hot.

Chongqing has fine street eats, especially if you like chilli
Chongqing has fine street eats, especially if you like chilli

For a while, Chongqing was also the “Wild West”. The local Community party secretary, the charismatic Bo Xilai, won national prominence for his “revitalization” of Chongqing, plus a crackdown on crime and nostalgia for Chairman Mao, which included the singing of “red songs” on local radio, television and karaoke bars.

Bo famously came unstuck after the mysterious death of a British businessman who had worked closely with his high-powered wife, Gu Kailai. His police chief, Wang, tried to defect to the US after a massive falling out with Bo and it emerged that the anti-corruption drive had been more about taking over rackets than stamping them out.

Bo was sentenced to life imprisonment last September after being found guilty of corruption and abuse of power. His story is well told by John Garnaut’s book, “The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo.”

A visiting group of Australian journalists found that the locals were eager to promote the city and glad of the outside attention. When the journos were asked what they knew of Chongqing, it often led back to the subject of Bo Xilai, which led to sighs and downcast eyes, with the occasional nervous laugh (hand over mouth).

However, the city is home to a lesser known but still fascinating strand of history due its role during World War II as the seat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government. The visiting journalists were taken to the restored headquarters of the US general, Joseph Stillwell, which made the locals particularly happy.

Stillwell was ahead of his time, serving three tours in China between the wars as a young officer and learning Mandarin. During World War II, he presided over vital but lesser known campaigns in the China-Burma-India theatres. That role included bringing supplies into China from India along the tortuous Burma Road and a perilous airborne supply route known as The Hump.Bust of US General "Vinegar" Joe Stilwell

Bust of US General “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell

His old HQ is fairly spartan, as befitting a man nicknamed “Vinegar Joe” The hosts for the visit proudly noted that Australia was one of 22 countries which had diplomatic representation in Chongqing during World War II. The dynamics were complex, with the Kuomintang often criticised for fighting Chinese communists rather than the Japanese and rorting the supply pipeline.

But the city’s time in the spotlight is still cherished. “The history of the Second World War is the most precious heritage of this city,” said a local academic and writer. “It is our common history,” said another. “We [China and Australia] were allies.”

FDR's 1944 thank you to the people of Chongqing
FDR’s 1944 thank you to the people of Chongqing

The visit was covered by numerous local media outlets and one historian/journalist quizzed this reporter in depth on Stilwell. As it happens, I once read a lengthy essay on him by the American historian Barbara Tuchman but it was unnerving to be grilled as an informed commentator.

The best was yet to come, however. The journalists were taken from the Stilwell HQ to a reception at the local Great Hall of the People. The group leader, Canberra Times editor-at-large Jack Waterford, who was the only journo was passably dressed for such an occasion (once a neck tie was helpfully supplied by the hosts).

For those who don’t know Waterford, he could be described as a Chips Rafferty figure in Australian journalism, provided an avatar of the craggy actor had possessed and digested a personal library of some 25,000 books.

"President" Jack Waterford talks with state information minister in Chongqing
“President” Jack Waterford talks with state information minister in Chongqing

The Australian contingent were introduced as “world famous journalists” and Waterford was referred to “President Jack” by the State Minister for Information, Yan Ping.

It must be said that Waterford took this sudden promotion in his stride, although his Australian listeners detected that his speech cadences took on Whitlamesque flourishes as the night wore on.

Help sought from old China hands

Making good use of a sculpture in a Beijing mall
Making good use of a sculpture in a Beijing mall

A first-time visitor to China, arriving in late 2013, can perhaps be excused for feeling like a Johnny-come-lately.
Certainly, I felt that way as a journalist who has been reading about “the China story” for many years and writing about some of the ramifications for Australia.
Some sights were already familiar, like Shanghai’s futuristic skyscrapers or the famous stretches of the Great Wall outside Beijing. But a series of briefings, interviews and encounters over almost a fortnight raised many more questions than answers, even on subjects that seemed familiar at first.
The visit followed the third plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee which resolved (in theory at least) on major changes that included giving a “decisive” role to markets, easing the one-child policy and ending “re-education” in forced labour camps. The mood was upbeat and the attitude towards Australia was positive, although the visit came before the Abbott government strongly sided with the US and Japan over territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
Most officials had eerily similar summaries of the main messages from the plenum. The need to switch the drivers of economic growth away from investment and exports to domestic consumption. The need to boost the quality of economic growth rather than to pursue the highest growth. The need to improve the lot of those who have been left behind.
The ANZ bank’s chief economist for greater China, Li-Gang Liu, told visiting Australian journalists that the plenum was the most important since that in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping set the course for opening the Chinese economy. “If you look at the plenum there are a lot of far-reaching social and economic reform measures, that will return China’s growth to a more sustainable path,” Liu said. “It’s very difficult to imagine going forward that China can continue to maintain double digit growth. But single digit growth of around 6 to 7 per cent is not a bad growth number at all.”
The economist argued that the plenum aimed to address deep structural issues like the power of the state sector and income inequality. The hot spots for urbanisation and growth were China’s central and western regions which were still growing at between 10 to 12 per cent a year.
But Li-Gang played down the impact of easing the one-child policy, which only allowed urban parents who were both only- children to have a second child. The new policy is to allow a second child if one parent was an only child. (The one-child policy is not applied in rural areas or to ethnic minorities).

The relaxed one-child policy aims to slow China's ageing
The relaxed one-child policy aims to slow China’s ageing

“I think it’s largely a response to China’s ageing population,” he said. “If China doesn’t change its one-child policy by 2030, it’s ageing population will be as large as Japan has now – more than than 25 per cent of the population will be aged 65 years and above.”
“China will not have a baby boom. Our estimates show that in the next 10 to 20 years China will have an extra population of between 9 million to 15 million … This will not change the population dynamic. The working population will continue to decline but it will slow down the pace of China’s population ageing.”
The China Daily reported that the new policy would like time to come into effect because they involved changes to the law. Areas with a high concentration of eligible couples and older couples whose “biological clock” was ticking would get second-child permits first. Steps would be taken to avoid a “pile-up” of births in a short space of time. Some Chinese told visiting Australian journalists they were happy and wanted another child: others were more cautious over  practicalities like their living space and income.

Couples are weighing their options under the relaxed one-child policy
Couples are weighing their options under the relaxed one-child policy

There are variations within the system. The famous film director Zhang Yimou faces a $1 million fine for having three children (the penalty being based on annual income). China’s richest man is one of five brothers but is reportedly from a poor, rural family.   However, I found it harder to get my head around the land ownership system in China and the hukou household registration system. I would appreciate being sent any corrections and links to further information.

As I understand it, land in China belongs to the state and the rural collectives (with foreign investors not being allowed to own land). A land user can obtain the rights to use residential property for 70 years and to industrial property for 50 years ad these rights can be bought and sold.
The problem is that household registration or hukou is based on birthplace rather than place of residence. The Economist has reported that around 270 million people, or about 40 per cent of urban dwellers, have their official hukou status in the countryside. This prevents migrant workers from getting full access to public services in the cities, and they can’t unlock the value of their leased rural property to get ahead.
An ANZ research report argued that land reform and household registration had to be changed. “The lack of clear land rights made many farmers vulnerable to land grabs by local administration by local administrations in the name of economic developments, leading to rampant local corruption and mass demonstrations,” it said. “We believe the rights given to farmers permitting their land leased to be transacted in the markets will allow farmers to capitalise on their land ownership, encourage agri-business and corporate farming, improve rural income, and facilitate China’s urbanisation.”
But that’s as far as my current understanding goes. To borrow a phrase from Deng, this first-time visitor is trying to cross a river by feeling for the stones.