"What would happen in China if people were angry about wind turbines getting built near their property?" Tyler Dumont asked Zhu Xi as they drove through a winter landscape last week in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.
Dumont, an Emmy Award-winning student journalist at Lyndon State College, would soon be interviewing a Sheffield family protesting the noise generated by 16 wind turbines in the mountains above their property.
"Would they challenge it?" Dumont, 20, asked Zhu, a Chinese student, as he merged onto I-91. The turbines in question were spinning on a ridgeline due north.
No, Zhu explained; the Chinese government owns most of the land, so private citizens probably wouldn't complain.
Zhu then proceeded to ask Dumont her own set of questions about the American political system, which led to a discussion of appointments versus elections.
A journalism graduate student at Beijing Foreign Studies University, Zhu, 21, was shadowing Dumont as part of a three-week exchange program at Lyndon State. She and four other students arrived on January 20 and left last Saturday. Over the course of their visit, they took field trips to New York City, Burlington and the Caledonian-Record newsroom in St. Johnsbury.
But the bulk of their time was spent among their American counterparts: attending classes, tagging along on reporting trips and helping to produce the student-run newscast for the college's daily News7 show, which reaches 9,000 Northeast Kingdom homes.
The exchange is the brainchild of Lyndon State journalism professor Dan Williams and assistant professor Meghan Meacham. Williams, who used to work for CNN, first made contact with an instructor at Beijing Foreign Studies University while serving as a Fulbright scholar in China last year. Meacham was visiting another school in Shanghai last spring when she came up with the three-week structure.
The partnership comes at a tense moment in U.S.-Chinese press relations. The New York Times and Bloomberg News websites were blocked in mainland China last year after both ran investigative accounts of the wealth of Chinese leaders; reporters at those publications have since been denied visas, prompting stern statements from the White House.
Meanwhile, for Chinese journalists to receive press credentials, they must now take an annual exam testing their understanding of Communist Party principles.
So what do fledgling Chinese journos stand to gain in an American training ground?
"They're primarily here to watch what our electronic journalism and arts department does at Lyndon. We have a very experiential journalism program," Williams explains. By contrast, he says, Chinese journalism programs are lecture-based and don't offer "the students... so much control over content" — let alone have them produce a daily news show.
Sitting in Lyndon State's small, bustling television studio before heading out with Dumont, Zhu put it in her own words: "We've never done something in the TV studio. It's brand new to us," she said. "Students here are very practical. They know how to operate the machines. We can never do it in school."
"For us, it's just lectures and papers," added her classmate, 23-year-old Liang Xiaojie. "If we want to do something practical, we need to get an internship."
If not for their accents, Liang and Zhu could pass for journalism majors anywhere in the U.S. Zhu sported grey sweatpants and Ugg-style boots; Liang wore a sweater and leggings. After snowboarding for the first time on Super Bowl Sunday, both chose sleep over watching the game.
But other American traditions have commanded their full attention. In China, they explained, journalists often aren't allowed in courtrooms, so it was a novel experience to visit the Caledonia County courthouse to witness some arraignments the previous week.
The restrictions placed on Chinese reporters are well-documented: government censorship bureaus often head off sensitive stories by issuing shadow directives to state-owned and commercial news outlets. Although some media respond by self-censoring, others ignore those boundaries — at their own risk. The Committee to Protect Journalists has tracked the arrests of 32 Chinese journalists since 1992, six of which took place last year. Those writers had reported on issues including ethnic unrest, local corruption and the shoddy construction of buildings that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Despite the intimidation, demand for watchdog journalism is growing in China. Wang Keqin, an investigative reporter who has lectured to Zhu and her classmates, has earned both death threats and fame for his reports on financial corruption and public health cover-ups.
In the wake of China's breakneck development and the resulting pollution, the press has made significant headway in environmental journalism. In one watershed moment, a group of reporters in 2005 documented the protests of a dam project on the Songhua River. Then-premier Wen Jiabao ultimately blocked its construction.
Zhu's immediate plans aren't so audacious. In her next semester of school, she said she'd look for an internship with one of the state-backed news services, such as China Daily or Xinhua. Her father worked for a local news station in her hometown in Anhui Province, but eventually, she said, she'd like to write stories about China for a global audience, preferably for a paper like the New York Times, where "you need to know a little bit of everything."
According to Dumont, at least, she appears to be sufficiently curious. "Even though they can't cover everything, like courts or the corruption of local officials, they know it, they get it, and they're still interested in it." Plans are already underway at Lyndon State to host a second batch of Chinese students next fall.