Reporting China: Tales from the Dragon's Mouth
A conversation with Seth Faison and John Pomfret
In a colloquium presented by the Center for Chinese Studies on May 12, Seth Faison (former head of the Shanghai Bureau of the New York Times) and John Pomfret (former head of the Beijing bureau of the Washington Post) discussed the challenges of reporting China. Both Faison and Pomfret had been students in China in the 1980s, and both entered their careers as journalists with perhaps a level of knowledge, understanding, experience, and, perhaps, sympathy that was unusual, if not unknown, among the first generation of U.S. journalists in the People’s Republic of China.
Reporting China: A Problem of Access?
Richard Baum, Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, and moderator of the colloquium, began by noting that the first generation of U.S. reporters in China -- those who were accredited in the early 1980s -- did not know quite what to expect as they began their assignment in China. The economic reform policy introduced under Deng Xiaoping at the end of the 1970s was a “big story,” of course. Its effects were, at least superficially, obvious. The political liberalization that accompanied the economic reforms was also big news, but just where liberalization started and ended was a not at all obvious. What these reporters found, in fact, was that their freedom to uncover the news and report it was highly circumscribed. Most of the country was closed to them -- they could not travel without the prior approval of the Chinese authorities -- and opportunities to talk to Chinese freely and openly were rare, if not nonexistent.
The result, Baum continued, was that many of the first generation of U.S. reporters became embittered, which was reflected in the books they published on their experience in China (such as Fox Butterfield’s China: Alive in a Bitter Sea). Baum asked Faison and Pomfret to comment on the difficulty -- or ease -- they faced in reporting from China.
Pomfret observed that “China is a relatively easy place to work.” Many of the rules that bound and restricted foreign reporters in the 1980s were still in place in the 1990s and remain in place today. “On paper, the rules have not changed at all,” Pomfret declared. "They are just no longer enforced" except in Tibet and in restricted military sites. Nonetheless, when it comes to reporting issues the Chinese authorities consider sensitive, reporters can find that the old rules are still enforced or that informal stumbling blocks are strewn in their path. The latter is especially a problem in the provinces.
To get around this, Faison said he used a second passport with a business visa to avoid detection when traveling. A journalist visa, he pointed out, is a red flag for hotel managers to alert local authorities to the reporter's presence. Pomfret related another method of avoiding the authorities: he sometimes slept in his car or in substandard lodgings in order to stay “under the radar of local public security bureaus.”
Pomfret went on to note, however, that since the 1990s, people in China have become much less reticent about discussing “difficult” issues and expressing their opinion. However, unguarded comments are often made in confidence and off the record. For instance, regarding officials in the Foreign Ministry, who once, in the 1980s, might refuse to discuss any issue at all with reporters, Pomfret said since the 1990s that “you can talk to them [confidentially] about issues that you can’t discuss openly.” Even more encouraging, is that in recent years local government officials have much less reluctant to openly comment when asked questions.
Looking at China “Through a Different Window”
Seth Faison had a substantially different take on the question of access. In essence he argued that “China is still a hard placed for journalists” because of an “inherent cultural conservatism.” Generally, people are hesitant to talk, especially if what they have to say may entail repercussions for others. There is, in short, “an instinct to protect.”
To overcome the reluctance to speak frankly requires building up a sense of confidence in the reporter, which takes time. Establishing confidence can be speeded up, Faison added, if the reporter has some relationship with those he wishes to interview, such as sharing the acquaintance of a mutually respected figure or having some other tie through a social network (what the Chinese call guanxi).
Reporting on China is also complicated because of the characteristics of American readers. As Faison put it, “It's not just about access to information; it's about explaining it to Americans. . . . Writing for an American audience, who know virtually nothing about China, is quite hard.” As an example, Faison mentioned a common and useful expression often encountered in China today: Wo you shi. The meaning can vary somewhat according to the circumstances, but the general idea is “I’m busy” or “I’ve got something to do.” The term is often used when people feel the need to get some time off by themselves or escape routine, daily pressures. Faison mention that a woman he was dating, who worked in a government ministry, took time off work by telling her supervisor "Wo you shi." The supervision, Faison said, simply accepted his without explanation.
Faison’s interpretation of this useful term, and the way it is accepted without explanation, is that “in a culture of overcrowding, it is easy to imagine people need a little space.” Furthermore, “in a highly politicized environment,” the vagueness represented by “Wo you shi” can be welcome. But how, Faison concluded, “do you explain this to an American audience?”
Highs and Lows
In response to a question from Baum about “journalist high and low points” of his time in China, Faison replied that the high point for him was the student democracy movement centered on Tiananmen Square in spring 1989. “It was thoroughly exciting,” he commented, “in a politically repressive culture to see a student movement bubble up. . . It was very inspiring and exciting to see people act with courage.” The low point was also the Tiananmen movement -- the massacre of the students and others in Tiananmen Square.
When Baum asked about his “favorite story,” Pomfret spoke of the bugging of the private aircraft of Chinese president Jiang Zemin, a story that Pomfret broke. Pomfret said he received a tip from a Chinese military officer that Chinese security agents had found hidden listening devices in a Boeing 767 used by Jiang Zemin, an aircraft that had been purchased from Delta Airlines and had been retrofitted by a firm in Houston, Texas to make it sort of comparable to Air Force One. This story, which Pomfret shared with a colleague writing for the Financial Times, was the result of lots of gumshoe work, which including digging out interesting information from a “certain European competitor of Boeing.”
Both Pomfret and Faison indicated that they did not focus on reporting on politics in China because, as Pomfret put it, “politics in China is a black box.” The SARS epidemic of 2002–3, for instance, for a moment lead to an unusual and remarkable openness among Chinese officialdom--the black box was opened a bit, in other words--but only for a moment. Faison found the Tiananmen movement to be a similar moment. In the spring of 1989 it was obvious that a monumental power struggle was going on at the highest levels of government in China, and, in Faison’s words, “for a brief period we could see what government was doing.”
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Seth Faison was for many years the Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times. In total, he spent twelve years in China, beginning as student, then working as a reporter for the Hong Kong Standard and later the South China Morning Post, where he covered the Tiananmen student movement of 1989 and the ensuing massacre. In 1991 he joined the New York Times, where he originally covered New York City. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 as a member of the New York Times team covering the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He is the author of South of the Clouds (St. Martin’s Press, 2004), which has been described as “a revealing, intimate portrait of China [told through] the story of an American man who ventures into its hidden realms – romance, politics, the criminal underworld, and Tibet. As he matures from a wide-eyed student into a journalist and a seasoned observer, he develops a passion for uncovering secrets, about China and about himself.”
John Pomfret was the Beijing bureau chief of the Washington Post for six years. Before that, he covered wars, famines, and other disasters for eight years in Bosnia, Afghanistan, the Gulf, and sub-Saharan Africa. Pomfret is now writing a book on his experience in China, starting with his time there as a student in 1980–82. His book tracks the lives of his classmates, before university (as Red Guards and sent-down youth toiling in the countryside), through graduation, and into the current day as businesspeople, Party cadres, dissidents, and housewives. Through the arc of his classmates' lives, Pomfret hopes to get at a broader story: modern China's journey from a closed Communist society to a nation of ferocious energy heading toward an uncertain future. In 2003, Pomfret was awarded the Obsorne Elliot Prize for Journalism by the Asia Society, an annual award for the best coverage of Asia.
Published: Wednesday, May 25, 2005