Reporting on China is challenging and important. Assignment China tells the stories of some of the American journalists who have covered China from the time of the civil war of the 1940s through the COVID-19 pandemic. Former China correspondent Mike Chinoy assembles personal accounts from eminent journalists who share their stories of reporting on historic moments such as President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit in 1972, China’s opening up to the outside world and its emergence as a global superpower, and the crackdowns in Tiananmen Square and Xinjiang. They describe the challenges of covering a complex society and offer insight into eight decades of tumultuous political, economic, and social change.
In an interview conducted on March 22, 2023, Mike Chinoy and Lenora Chu discuss the people who have covered China for American media and how they have shaped American understanding of China.
LENORA CHU: Hi, everyone. My name is Lenora Chu. I am a journalist and the author of a book about education in China called Little Soldiers. And I lived in Shanghai for nearly a decade. I’m thrilled to be involved with the National Committee on US-China Relations, where I’m also one of their public intellectual fellows.
And we are thrilled to have Mike Chinoy here. You were CNN’s first Beijing bureau chief and senior Asia correspondent, and he was with CNN for a total of 24 years. Before that, he was with CBS and NBC. He’s now a non-resident senior fellow at the US-China Institute. So we’re here to talk about his latest book, Assignment China, which is built from the foundation of a documentary series of the same name. Now, both the documentary and the book we’re discussing consists of interviews with American correspondents who covered China and the purpose, I’m sure, Mike, you can tell us. But just to pull a few words from the book, it’s to offer an understanding of the news people watch and read about China, but also to serve as a partner to our understanding of nearly 80 years of political, social, and economic change in China from the people who witnessed it firsthand.
So I found the book a fascinating read. I have to admit, Mike, it came to our house a few weeks ago in Berlin, and my husband and I were fighting for the first peak edit. My husband Rob Schmitz, he ended up, you know, swallowing the whole thing in about three days, and then I got my hands on it, but congratulations.
MIKE CHINOY: Thank you.
CHU: Let’s go back and start very briefly from the beginning. How did you end up going to China for the first time?
CHINOY: I went to China for the first time in 1973. I got on a student group a year after the Nixon trip. And this is just when the door was really first opening, and it was organized by one of these, you know, friends of China outfits. And I had a friend who had connections and got me on the trip. And it was the summer of ’73. And so I spent an absolutely fascinating month. The Cultural Revolution was still going on. When my group was in Beijing, the 10th party Congress, Tom’s party Congress ended and that was the one in which the youngest member of the radical gang of four Wang Hongwen was promoted to the highest position he held before he and Mao’s widow and others were toppled three years later. So it was an absolutely fascinating introduction and it kind of got me hooked on China.
And then I returned to the region in late 1975 as a journalist after getting a master’s in journalism from Columbia. And the main reason I became a journalist was because I was interested in China. And back then, it seemed that being a journalist was one of the few ways an American could get into China. Well, now, it’s more complicated, but then there was a period when it was very, very easy. But back then, you couldn’t go to study, there was no individual tourism, there was not much tourism of any kind, but journalists were, especially after Mao’s death, being allowed in slowly and then in a more extended way. So that’s why I ended up as a journalist.
CHU: So there are a number of themes that evolve when I sort of read the book. And I wanted to start with this story of your book’s introduction. You just mentioned going for the first time in 1973, and 20 years later you revisit the Maoist peasant that you’d first met in 1973, but now you are CNN’s Beijing bureau chief, and you wrote that you found everything to be a lie, which I thought was a very interesting way to put it. So tell me the revelation that you had 20 years later.
CHINOY: Well, in 1973, for me, the highlight of the whole trip was we were taken to a people’s commune outside Shenyang in northeast China. And our group was broken into smaller groups, and a couple of us were hosted for lunch by this very nice guy named Yu Kexin. And it was a really nice meal. And it was the closest we sort of felt we actually got to having individual contact with people. And I managed 20 years later to track down the guides who took me on the original trip. And they were able to help me find Yu Kexin, who had left his rather simple home and was living in a nice apartment with a television set. He’d sort of gone into private business, running a little tire repair factory. So he was clearly a beneficiary of the Deng Xiaoping era market reforms.
But when the minders sort of stepped aside, he motioned to me and he said, “I have to tell you, back in ’73, everything you saw was essentially laid on for you. Our conditions were miserable. We barely ate meat. We were lucky to have meat once a month. And the food that you had for that lunch, the officials had trucked in the day before just to impress the foreigners.” And so to me, that really resonated as what’s the truth and what’s not the truth, and whether what they see is connected to what kind of Chinese reality. And I think that’s really one of the central challenges that foreign journalists face in China.
CHU: Well, Mike, let’s segue into the challenge of finding the truth about China. And let’s just talk about the Cultural Revolution, the ’60s and ’70s, briefly. You talk about that in the book as…I mean, it’s a very difficult time to get good information, clearly, about what’s happening on the ground. Most of the journalists were not in China, they were in Hong Kong. Is that correct? Now, tell me some of the ways in which they did try to get information and then the fact that they were so far away, how did that skew what ultimately came out?
CHINOY: Well, after the communist revolution in 1949, virtually all American and most Western journalists, with rare exceptions, were forced to leave China. And so Hong Kong, then a British colony, became the base for what became known as the China Watchers. And this was a term that was applied to people who sat outside mainland China and peered in from a distance trying to figure out what was going on. And the primary tool of the China Watchers was perusing the official Chinese press and monitoring radio broadcasts and the BBC, and the U.S. government had very large operations in which they recorded and then translated and made available the radio broadcast. So if you wanted to know what Radio Hubei was saying, you could get it from the consulate or you could get it from the British. And so that was the central tool.
But then also especially in the late ’50s and early ’60s as the Great Leap Forward took a huge toll in China, there were refugees coming into Hong Kong, oftentimes people swimming desperately from Guangdong Province to get to Hong Kong. There were the very occasional traveler or diplomat. And so from this, people had to sort of put together an idea of what it was like. And when the Cultural Revolution happened, it was the same thing. There was a big great appetite for sort of red guard documents that made their way out. And this continued on into the 70s when I made my first trip in 1973. I remember having coffee with the Time magazine correspondent in Hong Kong at the time, and he said, “If you can get a copy of a provincial newspaper, please bring it back. I would love to see a provincial newspaper.”
And then the Cultural Revolution, with rare exceptions, was covered from the outside. There were two notable exceptions, both of which are in Assignment China. One is Audrey Topping, who was a Canadian photographer who was married to New York Times Hong Kong correspondent Seymour Topping. She got a tourist visa at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Went to Beijing, got some interesting pictures, left Beijing in a hurry because the French military attache there who was a friend of her said, “It’s not safe for you.” And she managed to get out and bring her pictures back. And she wrote a big piece for the New York Times magazine. And then Morley Safer, who later became famous as a host of CBS’s 60 Minutes was also a Canadian. And he pretended to be…had some kind of profession, had nothing to do with journalism, and went with a British cameraman who I think he said was a travel agent.
And they got tourist visas in 1967, and they rigged up a camera to make it look like a tourist camera. And they were there a month, and they produced a fascinating film, which I dug up called Morley Safer’s Red China Diary. But apart from that, people were just putting the pieces together from outside. And what’s interesting when you look back on the coverage is there are lots of details that were wrong, but the overall thrust I would say was more right than wrong on the broad parameters of the struggle of the Cultural Revolution. And that’s something that I think applies more generally, given all the obstacles. I think what is surprising is not how poorly the American press is, and I’m talking about the correspondence in Hong Kong or in China, not their editors or the pundits in the States. But the folks on the ground have done a pretty reasonable job when you consider the obstacles not perfect, lots of embarrassing errors, but the broad strokes more or less have been right more often than not, I would say.
CHU: That’s great. Now, let’s talk about the Nixon visit in 1972. That was described by…I mean, it’s still a time Americans have really little understanding of China and, you know, there weren’t tons of pictures coming out at all. Can you sort of set the stage a little bit for that visit? And, of course, all the journalists trying to get on the plane, trying to be the ones to go.
CHINOY: Well, in 1971, the Chinese had invited an American ping-pong team in, and they allowed three journalists to accompany the ping-pong team. And that was a deliberate signal from Beijing that China wanted a better relationship with the U.S. And then when Nixon announced that he was going, there was this kind of feeding frenzy among the press corps because nobody had ever been. And as Barbara Walters who went for NBC News at the time told me when I interviewed her, she said it really was like going to the moon. And that was the feeling. So journalists were falling over each other to try and get one of the coveted places.
And in terms of the role of the media, the Nixon visit is a kind of interesting milestone, and I devote a whole chapter in Assignment China to the recollections of people like Barbara Walters, Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Max Frankel of the New York Times, Stanley Karnow of the Washington Post, and others who went on the trip. Because, first of all, the Nixon White House, they were the first administration that really understood the power of television and had to manipulate television for political ends.
And the Chinese, although initially deeply suspicious and not wanting to agree to let a large press contingent in, in the end, did agree and cooperated with the Americans. They let the Americans create their own broadcast transmission facility in Beijing. And they went along with requests from Nixon’s people that key events like the welcoming banquet that Zhou Enlai hosted for Nixon be broadcast live from the Great Hall. And it was timed for breakfast time TV in the States. The events Nixon’s schedule was created largely with the American television viewing audience in mind. So, for the journalists, it was this great adventure. And despite all the frustrations and the fact that they couldn’t go out on their own and they couldn’t talk to ordinary people, it was the first glimpse of what seemed to be like, you know, going to the moon.
And so, as Bernard Kalb of CBS, who sadly just passed away recently, said, you know, “Everywhere you looked, you got great pictures. And that trumped everything else.” And I think that was important for Nixon’s politically, both in terms of convincing the American public that a rapprochement with China was a good idea. It certainly helped him with his election prospects. And the Chinese, Zhou Enlai, the people, and Mao were sophisticated enough to understand that this was something they ought to cooperate with. So it became this kind of watershed moment in journalistic history as well as in the diplomatic history.
CHU: So, now, we’re in the ’70s and ’80s, and the stories that come out of those times, you know, as a journalist working in China in the 2010s, it struck me how odd…I mean, it was so interesting that journalists used to…you have Jim Laurie of ABC News in the same room with Zhou Enlai. You have Deng Xiaoping personally meeting with the Washington bureau chiefs during a trip. That was when he went over to the U.S. Is that right?
CHU: It hasn’t happened in years. Tell me about what that was like to sort of be working during that era. And then also conversely, does that now affect our understanding now? We’re not in the same room with the decision-makers. We can’t really read their body language, except through a television monitor.
CHINOY: Well, there’s sort of two separate points. And the first one which I think is very, very interesting is it is inconceivable that Xi Jinping would ever sit down with an American TV anchor. And yet back then when China was just emerging from the isolation of Mao’s era, and it was still quite rigid, ideologically, they were just at the beginnings of the reforms, I remember going to a Deng Xiaoping press conference in Bangkok in 1978 when I was working for NBC News, even before CNN existed in a small room. They were like 15 of us and Deng sat at a table and we asked him questions. Right before his U.S. trip, he had a press conference, invited a number of journalists many of whom then went and opened the first news bureaus for their organizations in Beijing and people got to ask him questions.
Deng was very savvy, and the people around him understood that it was in China’s interests to make their case in a way that it’s inconceivable that you can do that now. So, ironically, China’s advanced in so many ways in all these decades, but in this era, it’s gone backwards. I think the first journalist who went there was this odd sort of paradox. On the one hand, it was for many of these journalists has spent their whole careers studying, they’d studied Chinese, they’d been in Hong Kong watching China from the outside. Surprising number of them had all studied Chinese at Harvard is quite interesting. But they got there. And so on the one end, it was like culmination of a dream, here we are. But then again, they ran into the realities of having to work in China where they were followed, where it wasn’t easy to talk to people, where there were restrictions on where you could go, and all the rest of that.
So there were all sorts of difficulties and tensions, but to have a ringside seat, and I was at this point in Hong Kong, but, you know, able to go in and out of China periodically, I didn’t move there until 1987 because CNN didn’t exist in 1979 when normalization happened. But to start to witness the society kind of come out of the trauma of the Mao years and try and halting ways to come to groups with that, and then to struggle with how do you introduce, you know, elements of a market economy, how do you learn from the West, and how do you develop exchanges, and so on, was an extraordinarily interesting and exciting period. So you mentioned Jim Laurie of ABC, he about, you know, the stories initially was all a series of first, the first private restaurant, first private car, and that continued when I opened the CNN Bureau in the fall of 1987.
One of the first stories we did was the first Western makeup exhibition in China. And there were these long lines of Chinese women and waiting, you know, almost like trying to beat down the doors to go in to get a taste of Western makeup because under the Mao years, everybody wore blue and gray and white and being pretty was considered bourgeois. So to see the society come alive, and actually as a British diplomat wrote a very interesting book about the end of the Mao era cult coming alive, and so to watch that was extremely exciting. And I think that informed much of the reporting, although quite a lot of it also dealt with dissidents and political tensions and the power struggle between reformers who wanted to go faster and conservatives who thought that this was going to undermine the foundations of Communist Party rule, but extraordinarily interesting.
CHU: And the optimism that you speak of when you moved there as a journalist that sort of comes through. But then we have to jump ahead to your chapters, Beijing Spring and the Crackdown in Tiananmen, which were frankly riveting. I could not put the book down during those chapters. So this is the lead-up to Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit and the Tiananmen protests, and then, of course, the subsequent crackdown. There’s a lot that emerged, I think, from just reading those chapters that I didn’t know. And I feel like, you know, maybe some people do, but a wider audience should know some of these details. But that was how the CNN effect was coined, and you were there for all of that. You talk about, you know, figuring out your CNN engineers, figuring out how to broadcast images, you know, via CCTV at some points, you know, through the Sheraton Hotel and this and that, and just negotiating all of that with a foreign ministry. Can you tell us a little bit about what that was like to be there?
CHINOY: I moved to Beijing in mid-1987 to open up the CNN Bureau. And I came with a camerawoman, Cynde Strand, and a soundman, Mitch Farkas, who could also shoot video. So we were it. And most of what we did in ’87, ’88 was really just kind of slice of life, you know, and that’s something that I always thought was really important to just give viewers a sense of what’s life like for ordinary Chinese, to humanize China after so many years of being cut off. But obviously, there were political stories. And then in the spring of 1989, the student protests began when Hu Yaobang, who was a kind of reform-oriented former Communist Party chief, who’d been booted out of his position because conservatives felt he hadn’t been tough enough on an earlier round of student protests that began in Shanghai in late 1986, but he was still a member of the politburo. And he collapsed and died of a heart attack during a big argument in the politburo in April of ’89. And so the students went to Tiananmen Square, ostensibly, to mourn Hu Yaobang. And that ostensible mourning is what kind of gave them the space to build a movement because how could the party object to mourning a former party leader?
And the party itself was very divided. And so because of that, there was room and then suddenly this movement exploded. And as a journalist living there, you were always frustrated because you knew you were getting a limited view of Chinese society, and you had a sense there were these undercurrents and you couldn’t always get to them. So this was like, you know, peeling the layers of the onion back and you could suddenly see all this ferment underneath. So it was extraordinarily interesting and very exciting and spending, you know, almost all our waking hours doing that. And for me, when I wasn’t doing that, I was negotiating with the foreign ministry about, you know, how many microwave links CNN could bring in to go with its satellite dish for the Gorbachev trip.
And this is another interesting case where an accident of history really is the reason why the live coverage of Tiananmen became a significant as it did. Mikhail Gorbachev was coming to Beijing to put an end of the 30-year-long Sino-Soviet dispute. And the Chinese authorities wanted extensive international media coverage. It was going to be the crowning diplomatic achievement of Deng Xiaoping’s career. He’d normalized relations with the U.S. Now, he was going to bring it into the Sino-Soviet dispute. And so they agreed to allow CNN and the other networks to bring in tons of equipment. And we had a 3-meter satellite dish, which we set up in the garden of the Great Wall Hotel. They gave us visas for 50 people. And Bernard Shaw, the main CNN anchor came and other reporters came, producers, and camera crews, and editors. There was a whole army.
And everybody came in thinking that the story was Gorbachev. But then the protestors literally stole the stage on which the Gorbachev visit was supposed to happen. We had live position. We got permission to go live from the rostrum of Tiananmen Square where Mao waved to the masses during the Cultural Revolution because that was where the welcoming ceremony for Gorbachev was going to be. But on the morning of that Monday morning, the square was packed with protestors and they had to kind of, you know, sneak Gorbachev in the back door of the great hall of the people, but their bureaucracy wasn’t nimble enough to do anything about it.
So there we were on the rostrum and over my shoulder as I did my live shot, camera panned in, and boom, you saw these tens of thousands of students. And that whole week of Gorbachev, you had this remarkable phenomenon. And CNN was at that point the only 24-hour-a-day television network while the imitators came later. So CNN just flooded its air, but then, you know, Dan Rather was there for CBS and was anchoring the CBS evening news from Tiananmen Square. So it became this moment where for the first time in a country that Americans had seen as remote and distant and mysterious, suddenly, television reports, television images were coming out live as it happened. And then, of course, martial law was declared and the live transmissions were stopped.
So what was live for the rest of the time, including the night of the crackdown, were mostly live phone updates and then video that was smuggled out of China to Hong Kong and broadcast there. But it was a very important moment for the media and there was a famous episode when the Chinese officials came into the CNN workspace and ordered CNN off the air after Gorbachev had left, and they managed to rig a camera crew up, my colleagues at the time. So this confrontation, the Chinese negotiating with CNN producer Alec Muren, that you have to get off the air, no, where’s the paper, we want to see the chop, all of this was seen around the world and President Bush was watching and so on. And that’s one of the reasons why you talk about the CNN effect because things are happening and governments are forced to respond.
CHU: The Tank Man photo, no, I didn’t realize that was, you know, sort of taken under the cover of fire and it was almost sort of luck. I mean, there are bullets, you know, whizzing by and that AP photographer just sort of leaned over a window and happened to catch it, and then it had to be smuggled out by bicycle and all forms of transportation. But I found that also very riveting as well because it shows what you all had to do just to get the story out, you know?
CHINOY: Well, I mean, one of the reasons why I wrote this book and why I think this book is both of value as well as being, you know, interesting to anyone who’s curious about this stuff is most people don’t know what reporters actually do. They see the picture, they read the story, they watch the report on TV, they listen to it on the radio without any real sense of what went into collecting the information, collecting the images, assembling it, writing it, transmitting it. And yet as you know, as a journalist and anyone who’s familiar with the news business knows that process decisively shapes what you get. You know, if you run out of film and the guy runs in front of the tank, there’s no picture of the man in front of the tank. If your battery dies at the critical moment, there’s no video.
And so part of the value of this book is to give people a sense of kind of behind the scenes what it’s like. And the man in front of the tank is a very interesting example. Nobody knew that was gonna happen, but a number of news organizations had taken rooms in the Beijing Hotel, which looks out on Chaoyang’s Street with Chaoyang Avenue, which leads into the Square. And that’s where I was on the night of crackdown because I had a good view down into the square. And in the pre-cellphone era, I could keep a hotel phone line open all night and do live updates, which is what I did. So people were just looking out, standing on the balcony, looking out to see what would happen. And this column of tanks came down from the center of the square, and this guy with a shopping bag ran in front of the tanks, and the tanks stopped to the credit of the tank driver. He didn’t run him down or shoot him.
And there was this extraordinary drama, and there just happened to be cameras there recording it. And there happened to be a photographer who took the picture, and then being wise to the fact that the post-crackdown security people were everywhere. You know, he found a student who, you know, hid the film, biked back to the AP Bureau, and the photographer talks about until the next day when he came in and saw all these messages from the president of the AP and from all over the world, he had no idea that he’d gotten this shot that’s gonna go down as one of the arguably, you know, dozen most powerful images of the 20th century.
CHU: Yeah, it’s amazing. Now, picking up on the thread of journalists shaping the narrative. You know, Tiananmenn, when I think about media coverage, that was one of the instances in which it was so clear how American reporters were shaping the narrative. You have in your book, Nick Kristof of the New York Times saying the protestors were actually motivated by different things, right? There’s inflation, there’s corruption, there’s all kinds of things that they’re protesting. And he says, “I’m not sure how good the media did a job of explaining that.” And it was very easy to shorthand it as pro-democracy, and Adi Ignatius sort of, you know, also said that journalists sometimes would oversimplify. Can you talk about this a little bit in…I mean, I think now we have so many more different sources of information, but at that time the media was basically it. Are there any sort of lasting impacts to how we see Tiananmen based on how we covered it?
CHINOY: I mean, it’s an absolutely valid question. And it’s a real challenge because, you know, journalists are limited by format, by how much time and space they have, and by the fact that they have to make their reports comprehensible to folks who don’t necessarily know the first thing about China, and if you’re sitting, you know, in Minnesota or in Manchester, England, or wherever. So I think if you go back and read the coverage, you know, you will see some effort to explain what this was, but somehow it gets distilled into the pro-democracy movement. And, of course, democracy to Americans means something. And it’s not clear that the students all wanted an American version of democracy. I mean, I think most of them wanted an anticorruption, they wanted an accelerated reform, they wanted greater political freedom. They had campus issues they wanted to address, and then workers got involved with workers’ issues.
So it was a whole hodgepodge of grievances that were being articulated. But if you have to write a headline in six words, if you have, you know, 90 seconds in your radio story, you use this shorthand. And part of it is just it’s the nature of the beast. It’s one of the problems with journalism. And then part of it is maybe journalists have to work even harder. There’s another example that the reporters I interviewed talk about in the book in relation to the Tiananmen period. And that is the use of the term Tiananmen Square massacre. That became the kind of shorthand, and even today you hear it. The fact is, by all accounts, from everything I have seen and read, there were very few, if any, people actually killed in the confines of Tiananmen Square in Central Beijing, from the witnesses who were there all night, including my extraordinarily brave camerawoman Cynde Strand, from others. They didn’t see that.
But there were lots of people killed on the Western approaches to the square. I saw people shot and killed in front of the Beijing Hotel on the morning after that night. So there’s no question a lot of people died. There’s a debate about how many, but people were killed by the People’s Liberation Army. But in the Square itself, I’m not altogether clear, even though there were a lot of bullets whizzing around that many or any people were killed. And so I use crackdown in Tiananmen Square as my shorthand, which is true, but, generally, I don’t use massacre in Tiananmen Square because it opens…you know, there is a value in getting it right. You know, some people will say it’s academic, A lot of people were killed by the Chinese army. But if you’re a journalist, you want to get it right.
If they weren’t killed in the Square, you should talk about the Beijing massacre or the large widespread killing of protestors in Beijing on the night of the crackdown. So precision does matter because it does shape the public narrative and it gives a weapon to the Chinese government to say, “Ah, see these lying foreign reporters. No one was killed in the Square, and they talk about the Tiananmen massacre.” So I think it’s really incumbent on reporters to be as careful and precise in their language and be aware of how this press shorthand can kind of take on a life of its own.
CHU: Speaking of journalism over the years, is there a typical China journalist? I mean, these are very colorful characters as they come out in your book, the personalities, and the documentary, the personalities really come out. But how has the sort of caricatured or the typical journalist that cover’s trying to change over time? I mean, was there language capabilities? Is it more important as time went on? And also where are we going with it? Because now we’re in a time where China’s making it difficult for journalists to live and work in China again. And so we’re watching from the outside often. You know, I’d just love to hear your thoughts on all of that.
CHINOY: I don’t know if there’s a typical China journalist. It is certainly true that the first generation who went in and opened bureaus were by and large people like myself, like Richard Bernstein of Time magazine or Fox Butterfield of the New York Times, or Melinda Liu who’d studied Chinese in college, who had an abiding interest that predated being able to go to China, for which China was kind of a calling. It was more than just another beat. And I think that has been somewhat true. But as China became more of a sort of normal stop on the rotation as it kind of opened up, there were plenty of folks who were just good journalists who got the assignment and maybe they did six months of Chinese before they went, or maybe they didn’t do any and just relied on an interpreter.
But I would say a lot of the people have had good Chinese language skills, and I think one of the really important changes in the last 20 years has been the growing number of ethnic Chinese who have worked as reporters with the first generation. There were only two. There was Frank Ching who opened the Wall Street Journal bureau, and Melinda Liu of Newsweek. But there’s a growing number of people there, either Chinese American, Chinese Canadian, Chinese Australian, people born in China who then immigrated to the States or their parents immigrated to the States, or their parents came from China. And so you’re having people who go back who have much closer to native level proficiency in the language. And, of course, they look like everybody else. And that is an enormous advantage because as a foreigner, you stand out like a sore thumb in China, and somebody who, particularly if they are careful to dress like a local and looks like a local, can do things, and get places, and get access, and have interactions with people without frightening them off in a way somebody who looks like me is never gonna be able to do.
And I think that’s contributed to a lot of very good China reporting, although it’s also put some of those reporters in a little bit, kind of greater risk because sometimes the local police look at them and don’t realize that they are an American or Canadian passport holder and treat them as badly as locals. Alice Su, who was with the LA Times in China’s now with the Economist in Taiwan, had a terrifying experience being detained in Inner Mongolia being chained to a chair. She thought she was going to be tortured until they realized that she really was indeed a foreign journalist working for an American newspaper and they let her go. But overall, I think it’s been very beneficial. And even now, there are still, you know, among the reporters in China, still some like that, but not obviously the whole…all the numbers have shrunk very, very dramatically, sadly.
CHU: Can you give us a sense of, you know, who’s left? Are they trying to stay? Are they trying to leave?
CHINOY: Well, I mean, you know, I think the major newspapers have one…in the New York Times, I have two people. But the numbers are way down. Interestingly, the TV networks were not targeted in the 2020 expulsions. And that may be partly because the kind of reporting that TV does is both much more superficial and they don’t get on the air very much. So it wasn’t the problem. And that’s still true today. You know, so there’s kind of a skeleton crew. It’s not that everybody has been kicked out. But if you have a tiny number of people in your bureau and so much is happening related to China that just to cover, you know, the official statements about Xi Jinping’s travel, or Sino-American relations or whatever, leaves you no time or space to sort of go out and plop yourself down in a farm for 10 days and do a story about what’s going on in the Chinese countryside.
And I think more broadly, the reduction in the numbers and the limited access has created a phenomenon which is bad for news consumers outside China. And frankly, I think is bad for China, which is China is a living breathing country of 1.3 billion individual human beings, each of whom have their own dreams, and hopes, and fears, and struggles, and triumphs, and disasters, and family issues just like everybody else. And if you can’t go around the country, if you can’t sort of immerse yourself and get a sense of that, what happens is, number one, much of the coverage focuses on the high-level political diplomatic military stuff because that’s doable. And you lose sense of the kind of the humanity of China. And it’s easier for this kind of one-dimensional narrative to take hold and the fact that like anywhere else, there are multiple shades of gray in China among Chinese people.
If you can’t get to that, if you can’t convey that, it really affects the perception of China at a time when in the States, certainly, you know, the China thread is you hear it all the time everywhere, and I’m the first to agree that there are very serious issues involving the behavior of the Chinese Communist Party. But that being said, it’s also a big complicated country, but a lot more going on. And it would be helpful both in terms of general understanding and even at a policy level to get a better sense of the dynamics within the society. And we don’t really have that now, and at the leadership level, ironically, even though, you know, Xi Jinping will travel, he is even talked at the World Economic Forum in Davos. But I think that the media and more generally the analytical community’s sense of the internal dynamic at the highest level in China is probably not even as good as it was during the Mao years because of the way things have changed, and that’s not good.
CHU: it’s not good. And the number of people-to-people exchanges are down, academics aren’t going into China like they were in the numbers before, you know, students are coming over to the U.S. in fewer numbers as well. Where is this all headed? What’s going to jump into the void to shape our understanding of China? I mean, at the same time, you do have social media, some of these tools that didn’t exist a few decades ago, people, you know, they can still tweet and, you know, WeChat, there’s all of these other things. I don’t know, give us a little bit of hope.
CHINOY: In terms of covering China, you know, there are lots of tools you didn’t have. But I think we are in for a rough patch and it’s incumbent on people who are interested and who care to do as much as they can, to read and learn and absorb and be aware of these trends and currents in relation to the coverage and the presentation of China so that they’re not sucked into what every alarmist headline in Beijing or Washington says because the relationship is much more complicated and more nuanced than that and needs to be understood in that way.
CHU: Got it. Thank you. I’ve been told we need to come to a close, but Assignment China, I’ve been lucky enough to get a copy in my hands. Congratulations, Mike Chinoy, and good luck on your 10-city book tour. Thanks for talking with us at the National Committee.
CHINOY: Thanks very much.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please refer to the video interview to ensure accuracy.