Recently I attended a presentation at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute about the play Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, which last year debuted in China.  Afterward, I had an opportunity to talk with Geoffrey Cowan, the distinguished co–author of the play (along with the late Leroy Aarons) and former dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Currently, he is the first president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, California. He also directs the Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy. Top Secret has been widely reviewed, but I was particularly curious how a play centering on the freedom of the media was received in China, whose media is given a different role. In  a wide-ranging response, Cowan, a well-respected intellectual, writer and educator, spoke about the play, its journey to and impact in China, and his experience with censorship and with Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter which is both friend and foe to the PRC government. Within the myriad of topics we touched upon, the main theme he stressed was ‘the importance of the media to defend its First Amendment rights and the importance of having an independent judiciary to stand up for them.’  Below are his comments about his important play, Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers.
VC: Hi Prof. Cowan, tell us about your play Top Secret.
GC: On one level, it is the story of the effort of two newspapers to print the Pentagon Papers, which were documents stamped “top secret” that had been compiled by the Defense Department in an effort to understand how the Vietnam War had come about, what mistakes had been made in it, and to understand the decision-making process. The government went to court to try to stop the papers from publishing those documents. Act One takes place in the living room of Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, as he and his reporters try to sort out the story while a lawyer for the paper advised that they should go to the government before they print and that they will run into serious risks if they don’t. The reporters and editors might even be charged with “espionage.” Act Two takes place in the courtroom where a judge considers the evidence in a secret proceeding. It is all based on interviews and transcripts. Some of the characters are composites and some of the dialogue is invented. But it is all based on fact.
VC: Why was it important for you and Susan Loewenberg [executive producer of Top Secret] to bring the play Top Secret to China? What was the significance?

GC: The play has been performed all over the United States. It was first presented in 1991 at the end of the First Gulf War, when it was broadcast nationally by National Public Radio. In 2007 and 2008 it toured the country with performances in 25 cities in the United States. In 2010, it had a 5-week run in New York. The story always feels fresh and interesting because it celebrates the importance of two great institutions: a free press and an independent judiciary. Hopefully it’s written in a way that is good enough for people to really enjoy the story, the drama, the characters and the dialogue as well. There are moments when some audiences stand up and cheer.

A number of serendipitous factors enabled us to bring Top Secret to China. On one level, China is struggling with these same questions that we are, though they have been balancing the interests differently. They are exploring the extent to which their country has or should have free press and to what extent they can and should have an independent judiciary. But since China continues to crack down on dissent, a lot of us never thought that the Chinese government would allow the story to be performed there. But they did. And the U.S. State Department was the principle funder of the tour under their public diplomacy program.

VC: What were the challenges of bringing this play to China? Was the Chinese government apprehensive? Did you have to get a license?

GC: You have to get permits if you’re going to sell tickets and so we needed to get permits in two of the cities where we were performing. Since the theater Guangzhou did not sell tickets, we did not need a permit there. But we had to get permits in Shanghai and Beijing. To our surprise, we got them.  We did not have any problems with the performances themselves, but there were two instances when, for reasons we don’t fully understand, we were told not to have public conversations after the play. After almost every play during our tour, there were after play discussions on stage with leaders from the fields of journalism and law, both Chinese and American. But on two nights those conversations were not allowed to take place. As it happened, on one of those nights, after a performance in Beijing at the Peking University Theater, The New York Times correspondent was in the audience. That led to a huge story in The New York Times.

VC: What were the reactions from the audience about the play?

GC: You can read some comments in the accounts of the journalists who wrote about the play and you saw some of it last night with Jason’s presentation about what was being said on Weibo by the Chinese audience.

VC: Yes I definitely feel like it has sparked their interest. And it sounds like they want to head our direction as far as the freedom of speech that we have.

GC: The students and young professionals in the audience really liked the play. They were truly concerned about the questions that were presented about free press and an independent judiciary. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times quoted people in the audience who said that the play had given them food for thought. It seems to have provoked a stimulating conversation for people in China.

VC: Do you think Chinese government is receptive to this trend and what challenges do you think lie ahead for the Chinese government?

GC: Well, I’m sure you’ve heard stories or know cases of similar productions that the Chinese government has not allowed.  In this case, the government insisted on reading the script in advance. They even wanted to see a taped run through. I think that was to make sure that the play had no nudity. You may have read about other performers who were censored – possibly including Bob Dylan. I don’t know if it’s true or not, it is claimed that when Bob Dylan on seeing his playlist for his performances, [the Chinese government] limited some of his numbers that he could play. So I think that the Chinese still remain very, very careful in reviewing what materials Americans can send into China. That’s what makes it so surprising, that this play was in no way censored in China.

VC: You were very fortunate! You mentioned last night that most of the students that came to watch the play were students of law and communication? Can you speak more about that?

GC: I went to speak in schools that were law schools and communication schools. I don’t really know who all the people were in the audience. I just know in Guangzhou [the performance was] sponsored by Hu Shuli and the Sun Yat-sen School of Journalism, so in that case they were [journalism students]. I know that 80 students came up from the Transnational School of Law at Peking University, but that is a separate school that is based in Shenzhen. I know they came up for the Guangzhou performance.

I know that a lot of students from the Fudan Journalism School attended the performance in Shanghai, but that only accounts for a fairly small percentage of all people who went. I don’t know who the other students or people were. One man who came up to me was the Vice Mayor of Shanghai – who was there with his wife who wanted to see the show. Another member of the audience was one of the country’s most famous novelists. Others were young professionals who had graduated from USC.

VC: You mentioned last night that a lot of the audiences were younger compared to American theater audiences.

GC: Yes, they were. I think the audience members were mostly in their 20s and 30s, which was striking to people who work in American Theater. In this country, audiences tend to be somewhat older.  But in China, the audience for Top Secret tended to be younger. Maybe that is partly because younger people are more able to speak English.  They are more in tune with American culture. Maybe they came because they find the issue more provocative – or more important. Or maybe they came because students from USC created a social marketing campaign on Weibo, using social networks to promote the play to their peers.
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VC: Anytime you have an exchange between two different cultures such as what happened with you bringing the play Top Secret to China, I feel like there is always some type of learning that happens. In this case what do you think the audience in China Learned from watching Top Secret? And what did you and the rest of the Americans in the productions learned from the Chinese?

GC: Well, I think first of all that the Chinese people are learning an important piece of American history. On one level, it is a history lesson. And I think they were learning something about how free press operates in our country or did at a particularly good moment, and they are learning how our judicial system operates. The audience seemed fascinated and perhaps exhilarated by the notion that the press could criticize the government, and the government could not to stop the press.  I’m sure all of those things were learned by the Chinese.

They also learned, and so did we, something very interesting about theater.  It was a surprise to many of them, as we learned, that we can portray American leaders who are still living or who recently died, and that those leaders could be treated in a way that was not entirely flattering. The portrait of Richard Nixon is decidedly mixed, as is the portrait of Henry Kissinger. The audiences were also surprised to see a play that was on a spare stage. Chinese theater features lavish sets and expensive productions. The audience members told us that they liked a play that dealt with serious ideas and did not have an expensive set.

As for me, I was learning any number of stories, particularly from the classes that I taught in law schools and journalism schools. I learned about their experiences with the press and social media in China. Maybe the most interesting story to me was about Weibo, and the way it has been used to expose and to help bring to justice a number of people who are maiming children. There is a practice in China where they chop off the limbs of children and those children become beggars who send money to their families or captors. Weibo became a device by which people could take pictures of those kids, distribute them via Weibo, and enable other Weibo users to identify those children. In that case, a major movement started that brought to justice, or sought to, the people who did that to those kids.

VC: Okay. Can you speak about Weibo? What is Weibo?

GC: Weibo is their version of Twitter – except it contains more information. In English, Twitter users can employ up to – but no more than – 140 characters.  But in China, because every character is a word, the amount of information in 140 characters is much more extensive than what you read and see via English-language Twitter. But on the other hand, Weibo is censored. The Chinese seem to be ambivalent about Weibo. On the one side, it can ferret out wrongdoing as was the case of the story that I just described. It also provides the government with a way of learning the kinds of concerns that people have in China and that may need to be addressed.  But on the other hand, Weibo is censored. In one class, one of the students talked about a friend of his whose job is to censor Weibo.

VC: So they allow the website [Weibo] to exist but they put some censorship on it.

GC: Correct.

VC: Wow, that is interesting. I have one last question for you, Professor. Recently, Congress passed the 2012 National Defense Appropriations Act (NDAA), which has a clause that would allow the US military to take into custody and hold indefinitely without trial any American citizen designated a “terrorist suspect.” What do you think that does to our freedom of speech? Should we fear a regression of our rights to resemble China’s current approach?

GC: I don’t think we will resemble China. I don’t know that particular revision of the law. But the speech that I handed out at the event last night may be relevant. I gave the talk a Peking University Law School. One of the points that I stressed in that speech is this:  The reason we have an independent judiciary, along with a constitutional provision that guarantees free speech and the free press in America is that the president, no matter who he is, will try to keep things secret that shouldn’t be secret. That’s simply a part of how the government works. It’s not that these are good people or bad people. I voted for President Obama. I’m a Democrat. But Obama has done a lot of things that I’m not happy with in terms of his government’s efforts to censor the press. That’s inevitable with government leaders. That’s why, whether it’s Richard Nixon, or it’s George Bush, or it’s Bill Clinton, or it’s Barack Obama, you need to have a free press and you need to have an independent judiciary.

That’s why this play is so important. Not because of the story that it tells about events that took place more than forty years ago, but because it speaks to a current issues –one that is always current. The government is always going to try to censor the media; it’s always going to be important for the media to stand up for its First Amendment rights; and it’s always going to be important to have an independent judiciary that can stand up for the press. And I see no reason to think that will change.