A Chinese copyright

Senior Sam Sherraden, an international affairs major and former Hatchet photo editor, spent the summer studying abroad in Beijing, China and is spending the fall semester further north in Harbin, China. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from East Asia as one of GW’s many expats.

In passing, a Chinese guy who lives down the hall said to me one afternoon (this is translated of course) “Great article.”

“Hi … yes … thank you,” I awkwardly responded in broken Chinese. “Your Chinese is really fluent,” the guy said. I know I haven’t written any articles in Chinese and I also know that “my Chinese” and “fluency” should never be used in the same sentence. I thought there had to have been a mistake.

Did I hear him correctly? It turns out I did. Down the hallway of my dormitory an article was pinned up on the bulletin board with an author by the name of Shamu Shierladen. The story was about an American student’s life at the Harbin Institute of Technology. I started to read it and realized it was mine – published two weeks ago in The Hatchet and republished in China.

And then I wondered how in God’s name my column got into the community section of the popular Chinese national newspaper Huanqiushibao (or Global Times in English). The translation of my work was a little rigid, but content-wise, it was pretty accurate.

Soon after, I gave the editor – who did not ask my permission to reprint my work – a call and we spoke frankly about the Western and Chinese customs in journalism and media, laughing before we disconnected about the irony that my name translated in Chinese sounds an awful lot like the translation of “bin Laden,” which is rather embarrassing for me.

The editor told me that according to Chinese journalism standards, content on the Internet is 100 percent fair game for use, whereas in the U.S., copyright law prevents this from happening. The debate over intellectual property in Sino-U.S. relations is not merely an issue about the government’s regulation over high technologies, but is also a fundamental difference in how our societies perceive words in private and public.

I understood the Chinese view of journalism more after I visited the offices of the Heilongjiang Daily – a paper of the Heilongjiang province in China – and found that editors regularly surf the Internet looking for content to fill their pages. In the Chinese media, the notion of private property is entirely different than how we perceive it in the U.S.

While in the offices of the Heilongjiang Daily, I noticed that within two floors of the office building, there were four different newspapers running – their desks facing one another’s. The different papers share certain departments, freely walk from one office to another and seem completely amiable with their “competition.” Having seen newsrooms in the U.S., which are as protected from outsiders and competitors as the Pentagon is, I nearly fell over with amusement and confusion when I saw these four newspapers with open doors all busily preparing for the four issues that were to be printed the next day. It was a cooperative effort.

Unlike our “free press” where news outlets are forced to compete with one another, independent of state regulations, newspapers in China are all still owned and controlled by the government, unlike many companies in the country that are now privatized.

I believe the Chinese notions of the rights of media are characteristic of both their history and the fact that ultimately the “editor” with the last word is the country’s political party. Founded as mechanisms of the party and originally used to explain and discuss party legislation, Chinese newspapers still perpetuate some of these characteristics. If a newspaper’s primary objective is a tool of communication between the people and the party, why would any editor second guess using information from the Internet? Who’s to stop them? There would certainly be no legal repercussions.

Clearly The Hatchet article had little to do with any kind of political objectives and therefore would come under no scrutiny from the party. But, you may be surprised to know if you read the last column I wrote about the nitty-gritty life on a Chinese college campus, that following its publication an official from my university came to my academic director and questioned her about my “intentions” in writing these stories.

Under more dire circumstances than a college kid’s view of a Chinese university, more severe government regulation is certainly noticeable. Over the past few months in China, I’ve realized that words that can carry the same translation in English and Chinese have far different meanings. We of course are assured that words like democracy, freedom and free press are defined by our standards. And while the purpose of words is of course to convey specific definitions, it has become clear to me that all people’s – and country’s – definitions are not the same.

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