Western Reporters Working in China

They use their blue eyes to observe this red country.
We cannot avoid it.
(Photo of AP Beijing bureau chief Charles Hutzler)

(Southern Weekend)  Western Reporters Working in China.  By Zheng Yan (郑焰).  September 14, 2006.

[in translation]

(Editor: In China, foreign reporters (especially western reporters) are the focus of attention.  Here, we relate to you some stories about what happened between this unique group and the unique country known as China).

On September 4, the name of Chinese writer Yu Hua (余华) appeared in the New York Times.  The New York Times described Yu Hua as "the hottest and most controversial writer in China."  It was the New York Times' Shanghai-based reporter David Barboza who interviewed Yu Hua.

Yu Hua told Barboza: "My work 'Brothers' may possibly seem somewhat extreme, but you can find these scenes anywhere in China ... the biggest reality in China is that it goes beyond reality."

In China, David Barboza not only interview people in the arts and culture fields, but he is more frequently a financial reporter.

On a certain day in June, David Barboza was on a BMW going through several hundred kilometers in the Taihang mountain range.  It was a rainy day in late spring, and the car was speeding along the mountain roads.  Amongst the lush green forests, it was possible to discern a few black spots.  Those were coal mines.

In 2006, the theme of the New York Times' annual report was "energy resources."  "Coal in China" was an important topic, and David Barboza went to Shanxi for the second time.

"In this world, there is no other place as big as China and experiencing such rapid changes.  Here, I can see all the scenes that span the 19th century into the 21st century," said David Barboza.  "This is the dream place for every reporter."

From the winter through late spring, the New York Times published four reports instead of the original one that was planned on coal in China.

Meanwhile NBC's Beijing bureau chief Eric Baculinao has been very busy reporting on the Olympics.  "The Beijing bureau will get two more reporters to cover the Olympics," he said during a break on a telephone call.

NBC obtained the exclusive rights for the Olympics in North America.  Therefore, these Olympics are very important to them.  "This is not just a sports meet, but this is the opportunity for China to present itself to the world," said Eric Baculinao.

According to the statistics from the State Information Office as of February 2006, there are 516 reporters regularly posted in China for 291 organizations from 46 countries.  Compared to 2002, there are 93 more organizations and the number of reporters has doubled.

They are usually based in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Shenyang, and they are active in every corner of China.

The "Paradise" for foreigner reporters.

David Barboza remembered what happened when he first came to China.  In November 2002, the New York Times paid for him to travel in China for two weeks so that he can decide whether he wants to work there.

On a clear night in late autumn, the airplane landed in Shanghai's Pudong airport.  The taxi zipped through the expressways in the busy center of Shanghai.  "At that moment, I thought of New York City," said David Barboza.

Previous to that, his good friend and colleague Jim Yardley (winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting) kept telling him that tremendous changes are happening in China and one can definitely come up with exceptional reporting from there.  On the second day after arriving in Shanghai, David Barboza wrote to the New York Times headquarters: "I'm applying to come to China."

At this time, the New York Times has five reporters in China, and this makes it the organization with the largest number of reporters in China.  More and more reporters are applying to come to China.  "Being in China means that you need to write more and better reports," said David Barboza.

Following the increase in emphasis and space for China-related reporting, China has become the paradise for foreign reporters.

As of December 25, 2005, the New York Times has published more than 3,000 pieces related to China for the year.  Of these, 445 were written by their China-based reporters and 86 of these made the front page.  Compared to the same period in the previous year, the total volume is three times as much and the number of front page stories has doubled.

When British reporter Jonathan Watts returned home the last two years, he frequently encountered ambitious colleagues: "They tell me that they are learning putonghua.  Some of them asked me outright when I intend to return home (they want to take over my job)."

"Heavens!  I hope that I can hang around until at least the 2008 Olympics," said Watts.

The Guardian where Jonathan Watts worked moved its office from Hong Kong to Shanghai in 1999, and then from Shanghai to Beijing in 2003.  Watts moved the office to Beijing's Dashanzi district, in which virtually all of the major contemporary artists in China work.

It is not just the western media, but even Qatar's Aljazeera television channel came to China in 2002.  At the entrance to its Beijing office, there is a promotional poster: "If everybody is watching CNN, then what is CNN watching?"  At present, there are four reporters from the Arab world based regularly in Beijing.

Sports reporter "Ma Meng" from Pakistan frequently hears his friends tell him: "You should stay in China.  There is no war over there."

Tsinghua University International Communications Research Center researcher Zhou Qing'an describes the foreign reporters in China that he knows: "Most of them have better language backgrounds that their predecessors; many of them admire Chinese culture; some of them are even married to Chinese women, or else they are of Chinese descent.  Based upon these factors, they have deeper understanding of Chinese society and culture."

Of the eight foreign reporters that this reporter interviewed, two had been to China before 1980, and their experiences of China are even more experienced than those who were born in China after the 1980's.  These are old China hands.

Four of the others have experience studying in China for relatively long periods of time.  Reuters' Christopher Buckley even chose a very special major -- the history of the Chinese Communist Party.  He was the only foreigner who studied this at the Chinese Renmin University back then.  "If I want to understand China, I must first understand the Chinese Communist Party," said Christopher Buckley.

David Barboza has a Chinese wife.  When he was in the United States, he made many Chinese friends.  After he arrived in China, he received more than 3 months in language training.  Before coming to China, Jonathan Watts worked as a reporter in Japan for seven years and therefore he has an understanding of China due to the proximity.  He has been trying to learn China.  On Watt's office war, there are written many common Chinese sayings in order to facilitate memorization: "At home, you rely on your parents; away form from, you rely on your friends."

The Vistas are Changing

Recently, Associated Press' Beijing bureau chief Charles Hutzler has been busy hiring people.  At present, Associated Press has 25 workers in China.  Faced with the increasing importance of reporting on China and the competition among the various news agencies, this number is far from enough.

"We are attempting to report about the real China and how ordinary people live in this country -- their joys, angers, sorrows and happiness, and their fates as the times change," said Charles Hutzler.

From the second half of 2004, the foreign media reporting on China began to rise to a climax.  The American Forbes magazine, Canada's Globe and Mail, United Kingdom's The Guardian and Financial Times all published series about China.  In March 2005, BBC moved its political discussion program Question Time to Shanghai.  On May 4, CNN began a full-week series titled Focus on China.  Afterwards, TIME and Newsweek all published special issues on China.

Yao Ming, Zhang Zhiyi and more ordinary Chinese people entered into their vistas.

Tsinghua University's Journalism and Communication School's International Communication Research Center selected the China-related reports from the New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal in 1995, 2000 and 2005 and analyzed them.  They found out that the western media have undergone a change in their coverage of China.

Researcher Zhou Qing'an said that one important change was the selection of subjects: human rights issues, Taiwan and other traditional subjects still exist; but there has been a sharp increase in economic coverage, there is more on society and culture while there is a drop in purely political reporting.

Using economic reports as an example, the three newspapers has 20% more in 2005 than 1995, accounting for 1/3 of all reporting now.  For social reporting, the three newspapers have the same number of reports in 1995 as 2005, but two of the newspapers have 15% more.

The specialized financial reporting on China no doubt progressed the fastest in the history of China.  The American The Wall Street Journal and the British Financial Times even have their own Chinese-language websites.  On the Financial Times' Chinese-language website, there are not only translations of their English-language reports, but they also invite Chinese columnists to write in Chinese and discuss social problems.  The current hot topic is, "Is there a middle-class in China?"

When the British reporter Jonathan Watts first arrived at The Guardian, the editor said: "The most important subject is the people.  The key in social reform is what happens to the people."  Society news is an important part of the reporting of China by The Guardian.  The environment, distribution of income, land and the role of women are subjects that are of interest.

Jonathan Watts once interviewed a 30-something-year-old construction worker.  He had worked close to 10 years in Shanghai, and participated in the construction of more than 20 skyscrapers.  He lived in a tent on the construction site next to the bustling Lujiazui Financial Center.  His greatest wish is to let his child change his fate and integrate into the city.

This made Watts think about the Industrial Revolution in England.  "The difference was that England took almost 100 years to complete this historical journey," said Watts.  He feels that he is experiencing the history that China is going through.

The Tsinghua researchers believe that in terms of the leanings in the reports, the 2005 data showed that 40% of the report from the three American mainstream media are balanced towards China.  In the mid-1990's, about 60% to 70% of the western mainstream media coverage demonized China.

The Reasons for the Changes

Associated Press Beijing bureau chief Charles Hutzler felt that the change occurred when economic development became a theme in the mid-1990's.

Around 1999, Charles Hutzler read a story in a Beijing newspaper which said that the villagers in a backward village in the outskirts of Beijing spotted a UFO.  So Charles Hutzler drove out there to cover the story.  The village was in a remote and isolated place in the middle of a long and narrow valley.  It was hard to reach the place.  When the friendly villagers saw that a blond, green-eyed foreigner wanted to cover the story, they summoned the village party secretary.  The man was very talkative.  After spending a few minutes with Charles Hutzler talking about the UFO, he began to talk about the development plans for the village, including developing tourism and stimulating the economy.

"At that moment, I suddenly realized the real reason why they were so enthusiastic about me," said Charles Hutzler.  "I realized that the desire to develop economically has entered into the lives of all Chinese people."

Charles Hutzler has his own ideas about this.  "In the 1980's, the foreign media spent a vast amount of reporting on the reform itself.  To reform or not?  How to reform?  In the mid- and late-1990's, the lives of all the Chinese people had undergone tremendous changes following the economic reforms.  It was no longer possible for China to go back.  Therefore, the media shifted the emphasis of the coverage from the reforms themselves to the various aspects of society affected by the reforms."

Today, the whole world is consuming "Made in China" products.  In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization.  The mutual interests of countries become more important, and anything that happens in one country affects others.  The problems about energy resources, trade, environment and so on in China now receive the attention of the whole world.

At a small village in the heart of Shanxi, David Barboza saw this scene: the coal was being dug out continuously from the earth and loaded onto trains and transported to various provinces.  The energy generated from the coal supported the normal operations of the huge manufacturing bases in the east.  And then the manufactured products are stamped "Made in China" and shipped to various places all over the world. Through the interest links in the globalized world, this remote village is not just an isolated exotic place.  David Barboza thought that he could see the whole world here.

NBC Beijing bureau chief Eric Baculinao believes that as an American television network, NBC must first and foremost provide what the American audience likes.  In his view, the 1980's was the honeymoon period between western media and China.  During the Cold War era, China and the United States shared similar strategic interests and besides, China was going through the reforms.  From the late 1980's through the first half of the 1990's, Sino-American relationships reached freezing point.  At the time, the American media put most of the attention on human rights and related political subjects.  Later, following the economic development of China and the change in the configuration of interests, coverage heated up again and the focus points are obviously different nowadays.

The Tsinghua researchers summarized the three mainstream American media (The New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal) about their 2005 reporting on China:

Economic image: Rapid growth, good prospects, actively involved in world trade. 
Political image: important player in international affairs, but has problems within the country.  
Social image: the allure of its traditional culture is longstanding, but public health and environment quality needs improvement, with social problems being an important factor that may inhibit development.

The Reporters During the Era of Early Economic Reform

If we turn out attention back to more than 20 years ago, it was a different scene.  In 1978, Sino-American diplomatic relationships were normalized.  Following a aeries of major victories in foreign diplomacy by China, the foreign mainstream media entered China.  The New York Times arrived, TIME magazine arrived, Associated Press arrived, CNN and NBC came ...

"It was like as if a door that had been shut for a long time was suddenly opened.  The mysterious China has finally opened up.  For the western readers, anything about China was fresh and novel," said Eric Baculinao.

The main theme in the 1980's was reform.  Eric Baculinao and others produced many stories about the reforms.  "For example, the land system in the rural villages needed to be reformed; as another example, the traditional restaurants in Beijing needed to be reformed.  Today, this is quite ordinary.  Back then, it is was quite extraordinary," said Eric Baculinao.

During the 1980's in China, foreigners were rare and foreign reporters were even more special.  Sometimes, Eric Baculinao applied to gather news in the rural area.  As soon as the vehicle entered the village, it was surrounded by curious onlookers.  "Sometimes, I feel like a panda in the zoo.  I could not get any work done," said Eric Baculinao.

And then the reporting on China reached a peak in 1987.  In the 1987, NBC went through one year of application and preparations, and successfully sent a reporting team of 150 persons to China for the special topic of "The Changing China."

At the time, there were very few hotels in Beijing for foreigners.  This unprecedented reporter group even created pressure to locate accommodations.  For one full week, the images of China filled the NBC screen: Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the Bund and the panda bears.

From the end of the 1980's to the first half of the 1990's, the foreign news bureaus in China underwent changes.  In the early 1990's, the New York Times went from its three correspondents (two in Beijing and one in Hong Kong) to two (one in Beijing and one in Hong Kong).  Following the economic growth in China, these numbers would change again.

According to Chinese Academy of Social Sciences American Institute teacher Zhang Guoqing, who has been paying attention to Permian politics and media research, this following is a fair characterization: "In the 1980's, foreigner reporters would come to China and say 'Please take me to see the pandas.'  In the 1990's, they would say, 'Please take me to meet various political dissidents.'  In the 21st century, they would say, 'Please take me to the Ministry of Commerce.'"

One Hundreds Years of Exchange

Time flies quickly.  Very few remember that the interaction between China and the foreign reporters went back to more than one hundred years ago.

Morrison reported on the invasion of the Allied Armies of the Eight Nations, and he told the world that the Empress Dowager wanted to establish a constitution.  The Australian reporter Turner was the first to tell the world about the infamous "Twenty-one articles."  The American reporter couple Snow went to cover the Red Army in Shanbei and wrote "Red Star Over China", and they met the Chinese Communist leaders face to face.  Theodore White became world-famous when he wrote "Thunder Out Of China" about how the Chinese Communists resisted Japan.  In the early 20th century, the volatile situation in China provided foreign reporters with the perfect stage to become famous.

"As early as 1904, we were already at the Dongjiaomin Lane," said Associated Press Beijing bureau chief Charles  Hutzler.

A hundred years ago, the Chinese elite class had lots of contact with the western media.  In 1896, as the Qing dynasty was quivering and ready to reform.  The 74-year-old Li Hongzhang visited the United States and gave a special interview with the New York Times.  The old man criticized the anti-Chinese legislation in the United States: "This is the most unfair legislation in the world."

The New York Times also interviewed Yuan Shikai while he was still in Tianjin.

After the new China was established, the relationship between the foreign reporters and China was not severed.

Following the increased interaction between China and the outside world, the foreign reporters today are more professional and specialized.  The Australian Christopher Buckley is wiling to regard himself as a recorder and a creative writer.  He explained why he chose this job: "I love gossip, I love stories, I love politics, I love China."

When Eric Baculinao joined NBC in 1984, all the foreign reporters had to reside in the foreigners' apartment complexes.  It was a time of materialistic deprivation and those glittering buildings were reserved for diplomats and foreign correspondents.  Eric Baculinao called them "luxurious mansions of the capital city."  Due to the tight housing situation at the time, foreign reporters could not have rented office space anywhere else.

But there are no such restrictions on choosing residences and offices today.  TIME magazine reporter Susan Johanna Jakes has her home close to the Yunghuo Palace.  There it is all green bricks, black roof tiles and verdant vegetation.  Each house has a red screen in front, and it is the typical Beijing hutong scene next door.  Jakes personally knows every Chinese resident living in that hutong.

The mysterious aura on the foreign reporters are fading away.  "In the past, we cannot go to most places and we can only go to a few places.  Today, it can be said that we can go to most places, but we are restricted from a small number of places," said Eric Baculinao.

On July 20, Eric Baculinao reviewed his life in his South Asian-themed office.  In August 1971, Filipino university student Eric Baculinao came to China for the first time.  He encountered a Red Nation.  Shortly afterwards, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines and Eric Baculinao was stuck in China.

From political refugee to foreigner reporter, Eric Baculinao went through many experiences in China: the "Cultural Revolution," going down to the countryside, the first university entrance examination after the "Cultural Revolution" and then the reforms and the opening.  Today, he is an NBC reporter and he has worked in China for 22 years.

In China, he has his family and profession.  He received an Emmy award for his reporting on China.  "This is all like a dream," said Eric Baculinao.

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