FIRST, THE FUNDAMENTALS: Bring what Jim had: endless curiosity, bedrock self-belief, a gift for logistics in complicated circumstances, boundless energy and a friendly and generous nature – the ability to make friends.
China is the most challenging of the four bureaux I’ve had – more challenging than South Africa during the dark days of apartheid. China remains an authoritarian state and has grown increasingly so since my arrival.
If you stick to writing stories about business and the economy, stories about China’s unique culture, and features that seek to explain the touchstones of Chinese traditions and daily life, your task will be challenging enough, but in the main, non-controversial.
However, if you also choose to write about issues such as the rule of law, human rights and the struggle to establish a civil society in China, then you are headed into controversial ground.
Most human rights lawyers I met when I first arrived here in 2007 have been detained, beaten, jailed and released, and are today very reluctant to speak with foreign journalists. One, Gao Zhisheng, remains ‘disappeared.’
The situation for reporting on these types of stories is tighter now than when I landed.
In South Africa in the ‘80s and ‘90s there were challenges to reporting – in covering conflicts between township residents and police for example. But by and large the authorities stood back and allowed you to do your proper journalistic work. Yes, your phone was tapped and your mail was opened – a contact inside the post office ultimately confirmed. But as journalist Chris Wren once told me, “I’d be insulted if they didn’t.”
In China there is both surveillance and interference on the street – and the people you interview on sensitive stories, in particular, are at real risk of being harassed after the fact.
Nevertheless, in China there is still room for good reporting and it can certainly be done provided you are keen to develop and maintain good contacts. A major advantage in that effort is the ability to read and speak Chinese. The greater your capacity on this front, the greater ease you will have in building a network of reliable contacts and going deep – to understand the nuances and complexities of China’s culture.
Without the language, your job will require enormous energy.
Unfortunately, my Chinese language skills are limited in the extreme. But very fortunately I work with an extraordinary assistant who is always willing to work as long and doggedly as I am, and willing, too, to patiently explain the culture as we go along. She is a perfect diplomat on my behalf and understands the importance of both winning people’s trust and keeping one’s word – in essence, earning that trust. She is also 100 per cent Chinese and very proud of China’s history and culture, and that’s important to me. Still, if I had to do it again, I would invest a lot more – or have my employer invest a lot more – in detailed language training.
My admiration goes out to many younger journalists who are today wisely opting to immerse themselves deeply in language instruction for a year or more prior to landing in China. Their ability to then move freely, speak freely and make crucial contacts will prove invaluable in reporting on this profoundly important and fascinating country. Being able to catch telling details, on-the-scene, in any developing situation will give them an incalculable advantage.
Additionally, as in any country, the ability to speak in the local language conveys a degree of respect admired by local people. That’s important in and of itself. But all of that said, never let anyone play the language card to try to diminish you. Junior officials, in particular, like to try this out from time to time, and stress how ‘inscrutable’ the Chinese are – especially to those who do not have a strong command of the language. The point is this: if you are careful, patient, have a great assistant and you’re willing to invest all of the extra energy required in dealing with time-consuming translation, you will be fine.
Another key thing: yes, Cantonese can help, but only if you are reporting in Hong Kong, the Pearl River delta and Guangdong province. It will prove of little or no use in the rest of this vast country. If you’re opting for language instruction, you want Mandarin.
Remember too when coming here that Chinese people, most often ordinary people, will be your best sources of insight into Chinese life and government policies. You will get very little from the government itself. They have a vast network of their own “internal” media – media they control from top to bottom – and they are now very far advanced in developing sophisticated “external” media too, aimed at influencing foreigners inside the country who are either resident here or passing tourists, as well as readers outside the country who are interested in Chinese affairs. The structures and goals of this highly developed propaganda system are set out and explained in papers by New Zealand academic Ann-Marie Brady (“Guiding Hand: The Role of the CCP Central Propaganda Department in the Current Era,” 2007) and American scholar David Shambaugh (“China’s Propaganda System: Institutions, Processes and Efficacy,” 2007). As a consequence of these internal and external media, the government sees you as being of little use.
Incidentally, some of us based here feel the Chinese government is engaged in a plan to thin the ranks of both resident and visiting foreign journalists. The renewal and acquisition of visas is becoming ever more difficult to obtain in a timely fashion. This trend is expected to continue.
Of course you will regularly seek comment from appropriate government ministries or from the police when doing your stories. You and your assistant will draft questions, produce them in the Chinese language, fax them off – yes, fax machines are still very much in use here – but you will very rarely get a timely response, or indeed any response at all. You might get lucky and score an occasional reply. But as author and former journalist Peter Hessler has noted, he didn’t get one in something like nine years.
There is a deeply ingrained fear among Chinese government bureaucrats of saying anything that might bounce back and bite them. Hence, no one wants to take responsibility. Don’t take it personally.
What will be essential – and in some respects painful – is to read the government controlled press as much as you can to get an idea of what the government is thinking. And don’t just read the “external” government media – the English-language China Daily as well as the English-language Global Times, which from time to time do some honest-to-God reporting to make tourists feel that they have actually landed into something approaching a liberal democracy. You should also read, or your assistant should also read, the Chinese-language media too, which on any given day can be entirely different from what the tourists and expats are reading in the English-language media.
Additionally, be connected to social media. In China being on twitter and having your assistant roaming on Chinese-language social media is now absolutely vital to reporting in China. By following your own set of foreign and domestic commentators on Chinese affairs – and selectively reading the best China-based English-language blogs, of which there are now many — you can keep up-to-the-minute on developing stories. There is a huge pool of knowledgeable and generous people in China who are reading widely on Chinese affairs and posting their views regularly. Follow them.
I cannot overemphasize the need to be connected if you are going to report from China. Just do it.
Once landed here, also make sure you travel frequently. It is dangerous – indeed tempting – to think that Beijing or Shanghai or Tianjin is China. If you do, you will quickly surmise that China is ready to rule the world. Right now. Right this minute.
It is not ready – although, that day seems to be getting closer.
There are still some 700 million peasants out of a population of 1.3 billion here. It is important for you to visit some of them and to see what life is like for them and their children far from the bright lights and big cities. Life is very different in say, Gansu province, than it is in Beijing’s sparkling Sanlitun Village. Although on any given night you might run into migrant workers from Gansu or Henan province observing the splendors of Sanlitun Village with jaw-dropping awe. The gap between rich and poor, between the city and the countryside, is a growing problem that will have to be addressed if the authorities want to avoid social unrest. The government says it’s on the case.
Reading? You will naturally want to prepare for your arrival in China by dutifully reading all the articles and books your can lay your hands on before coming. That’s natural. And there is no shortage of material. Books on China are now an industry.
But what I think is far more important is to continue reading once you get here. All of the wonderful books that have been written on China will mean more to you once you’re here.
You can find lists of books on China virtually everywhere. But I will recommend just three – books that not only helped me personally, but which I enjoyed: River Town, by Peter Hessler, which will encourage you to be curious, open and tolerant. China Road, by Rob Gifford, which teems with enthusiasm, colour and understanding. And Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, by Philip Pan, which reveals to you that there are heroes here.
Bill Schiller born 7 Feb. 1951 – a Travers contemporary
First worked for Southam’s Windsor Star and, since 1984, the Toronto Star.
Bureaux: Johannesburg 1988-1992, Berlin 1992-1993, London 1993-1998, Beijing 2007-2011
National newspaper award winner and two-time finalist
Toronto Star foreign editor 2002-2005
Harvard Nieman Fellow 2005-2006
Winner Amnesty International’s award for Canadian print journalism 2009 for his human rights reporting in China.
Work referenced in New York Times editorials twice in 2010, “Canada’s Free Press” Jan. 1, 2010 http://nyti.ms/ts6uSr and “China, The Sweatshop,” July 5, 2010: http://nyti.ms/ts6uSr
His investigative report on a public interest matter involving Canadian businessman Peter Grant was the lead case – together with another by the Ottawa Citizen – in the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2009 decision on responsible communication. SCC decision and story as SCC appendix here: http://bit.ly/vv8WMr
Journalism written up in Helen Suzman’s autobiography, “In No Uncertain Terms,” Stevie Cameron’s “On The Take: Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Years,” and Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang’s “The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar”.
In the spring of 2011, was detained and questioned by Chinese police for several hours and dealt a 2-day suspension from reporting – the first in China in more than a decade, according to officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.