Covering China then and now

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN Beijing Bureau Chief

Posted at Oct 18 2008 09:48 PM | Updated as of Oct 21 2008 05:52 PM

(Keynote Speech for the FOCAP Teodoro Benigno Memorial Lecture Series
September 25, 2008, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Makati, Philippines)

You probably do not realize how particularly proud I am today to have been invited as keynote speaker of this year's Teodoro Benigno Memorial Lecture Series.

Teodoro “Teddy Man” Benigno is an idol and a good friend.

My one regret is that my father and my late mother are not able to be present today. My mother, Lourdes, passed away at the age of 90. My 95-year old father, Cenon, is still up and about but is now virtually deaf and he no longer likes to venture out. I know they would feel proud that I am invited to speak in this special event named after a journalist they've always admired.

Teddy Man Benigno had been an idol and role model—an elegant writer, a fearless and relentless journalist, erudite, urbane and humane. Residing far away in China, I followed his reports and op-ed columns whenever I could get hold of Philippine newspapers and agency reports. Those were pre-Internet years, so my father periodically sent me clippings from local papers to help me keep abreast of the goings-on here. Of course, many of the clippings were Teddy Man's writings.

In the late 1960s a war was raging in Vietnam. China was going through the Cultural Revolution. Barricades were sprouting in the campuses—from San Francisco to Paris, Munich to Manila. At home, the youths raged against poverty, corruption and violation of civil liberties. Soon I found myself in the frontline.

Activist years

Behind the barricades, I tasted police tear gas and experienced getting hit on the head with a rifle butt by a Metrocom police as he pinned me down on the asphalt road.

I spent a night in jail for allegedly resisting arrest and possessing deadly weapons—all trumped up charges. Of course, a local court later dismissed the police allegations. That experience changed the trajectory of my life.

I became the editor in chief of Ang Malaya, our college paper at PUP and later the chairman of a national editors' league. I was a lead actor in a protest theater. We performed on stage, in the picket lines and during street demonstrations. We demanded academic freedom. We called for a free and democratic society. We denounced social inequality and the looming military dictatorship. Supporters called us "student activists" and "catalysts of change". Detractors labeled us "trouble-makers", "communist agitators".

Nearly 37 years ago, in August 1971, I first came to China for a three week tour along with 14 student leaders and young professionals from the Philippines.

We went because we were curious to see for ourselves the so-called Red China. I guess it was like visiting North Korea today, except that in those Cold War years, it was technically illegal in some countries like the Philippines to visit communist-controlled countries like China. Our passports were stamped with an official warning stating they were not valid for travel in communist countries.

We defied the rules and conventions. We paid dearly for our idealism and activism.

‘Forced residency’ in China

In the first week of our three-week tour, Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine president at that time, imposed emergency rule. He arrested opposition leaders and student activists and began 18 years of dictatorship.

Along with four of my comrades in the group, I was blacklisted in the Philippines.

By quirk of fate, our three-week tour turned into an open-ended years of exile in China.

We were just in our prime, "like the sun at 8 or 9 in the morning", as Chairman Mao described the youth. I was 20 years old, full of vigor and vitality.

But we abruptly found ourselves in a totally unfamiliar place. We did not speak Chinese. We were homesick and lonely. To earn our keep and make better use of our time, we volunteered to work on a state farm in Hunan province and, later, to work in a fishing company in Shandong. For days, we sailed in the high seas on trawler boats to catch fish. We experienced back-breaking work and lonely nights.

With few English books and limited overseas news to read, I turned to studying Chinese. To deal with boredom and temper my raging testosterone, I played basketball and pingpong during spare time—and took lots of cold showers.

At times, when things looked really bleak, my fellow exiles and I consoled ourselves: we are younger than Marcos; we can outlive him.

And we did.

We turned a bad thing into a good thing, an adversity into opportunity.

Working for TIME Magazine and CNN

My long experience in China, coupled with the bilingual skills and cross-culture knowledge that I acquired, turned out to be premium credentials. They helped me land jobs at Newsweek, TIME Magazine and now CNN.

But reaching those career goals took time and effort. I had to break glass ceilings, one push at a time. I had to overcome professional and nationalities-related barriers. I had to stare down political biases and racial stereotypes.

It took me eight long years to get hired as a staff correspondent of TIME Magazine. I had to work doubly hard. After all, I did not hold an Ivy League degree, I did not attend a journalism school, and English was not my mother tongue.

I was lucky, too. Along the way, I met some guardian angels, professional peers, like FOCAP member Sandra Burton, who mentored me and supported me as I tried to break barriers. Thanks to their friendship and support, I was appointed TIME's Beijing bureau chief, a post I held for 10 years.

In the summer of 2001, at the end of a year-long fellowship at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, CNN offered me the job of Beijing correspondent and bureau chief.

I did not seek this position. It sort of fell on my lap.

I had never done TV. I never planned nor imagined myself doing TV.

Training at CNN

CNN put me through six sessions with a voice coach in New York and two days of TV training in Washington. Then they told me, "Go… you'll learn TV while doing it". †Since then, I have been learning to swim while swimming, as Chairman Mao put it.

Why choose me for the job? Because of my booming baritone voice perhaps? No. Because of my towering stature or charismatic on-air presence? No. Because of my good looks? Yeah… but no, not really. Look at me: do I look like your glamorous hotshot TV journalist?

To CNN's credit, they took a risk on me. I know I will sound self-important, like blowing my own horn, but I believe I was hired for the job because CNN thought I knew China inside out, I had a network of sources, and I am very passionate about journalism and about China.

Working as an international correspondent may appear glamorous and exciting—and it is. We cover landmark events, interview fascinating personalities and travel to exotic places. But it's also frustrating because we frequently encounter bureaucratic foot-dragging and logistical problems. After all, only three decades ago, weather forecast in China was considered virtually a state secret. Twenty years ago, reporters were permitted nothing more than carefully guided visits and stilted interviews. Now, getting timely information is becoming relatively easier.

Why is it very important that foreign correspondents are able to freely report?

When China was closed off to foreigners, China reporting relied on the small band of China-watchers, mostly based in Hong Kong, or government officials in various capitals. Without setting foot on the mainland, they interpreted China and drew caricatures of China according to their own parochial notions and political agenda. At best, this resulted in simplistic, one-dimensional images of China. At worst, journalists became mere appendages to their governments and were subjected to their "spins".

China images then

For decades, China was viewed through the prism of the press and Hollywood and often reduced into single-frame images or stereotypical stories.

In the 1950s, the pejorative image of China was that of the little blue ants or automatons.

In the 1960s, the Chinese were stereotyped as the devious "Fu Man Chu" and the seductively wily "Suzy Wong"—all figments of Hollywood imagination.

In the 1970s, following Richard Nixon's landmark visit, the tone of foreign reporting swung to the other extreme.

This time, the frame was that of the cute Communist cadre who may be a bit strange and inscrutable but was okay just the same because he is America's ally against the evil Soviet Union.

In the 1980s, the hype was that "China has gone capitalist"—the glitzy images of discotheques, golf courses and Rolls Royce—when some Americans were made to believe that "the Chinese are becoming just like us"—until Tiananmen 1989 erupted and left many of them feeling like jilted lovers.

In the 1990s, the image was of a repressive China—the lone man in front of the tanks.

These one-dimensional images can be misleading. A country as big and as complex as China cannot possibly be explained in such simplistic formulas or single frames. China was neither THAT "rosy" nor THAT "dark". These one-dimensional images twisted public perception and government policies overseas. Conversely, they warped the Chinese impression of the outside world.

Covering China now

Covering China now offers great joys and equally great challenges.

Thanks in part to the Olympics, there have been signs of improvement in the reporting environment. In January 2007 China revised the rules and issued a set of temporary Olympic regulations which stipulate that foreign journalists no longer need to get advance permission from local authorities for every interview and visit in and outside Beijing. We kept this "little white book" like shield and a sword to defend ourselves from the "hand in front of the camera." Whenever there is a "misunderstanding" with the police and officials, we cite these new rules and remind them that they were approved by no less than Premier Wen Jiabao.

But even that doesn't always work. In the first year after the Olympic regulations were introduced, the FCCC recorded more than 180 cases of interference, including detentions of journalists and harassment of sources. In some cases, problems were resolved after our Foreign Ministry handlers in Beijing interceded by phone. Many times, however, local officials and police simply ignored the new regulations. There is nothing unusual about this. In China, such journo-phobia comes with the territory. Still, our biggest concern remains ensuring the safety and well being of our Chinese sources and Chinese assistants, who are more vulnerable to various forms of official harassments and intimidation.

Not all are dark. China is a great story to cover. One of the best parts of the job is the opportunity to travel around this vast, diverse and fast-changing nation. We also enjoy the chance to meet and interview interesting people and newsmakers. Because the country is so large and it is still so unusual to get access to senior officials – let alone exclusive interviews with the Chinese president and premier—we seek to China bottom-up, rather than top-down. This requires a lot of leg-work and long work days but this also makes it far more interesting. Instead of being confined to covering one press conference after another, or relying on press releases from PR agencies, enterprising journalists can actually venture into the interiors, explore "big picture" trends and put together compelling stories. Quite often, we can gather gripping narratives set in unique backdrops that put the headlines in proper context.

Journalism boom

When I was first starting as an international journalist in the early 1980s, there were only scores of us covering China for about two dozen overseas news organizations. In 2002, there were 353 resident journalists from 199 foreign media organizations. By January 2008, the total had gone up to 818 journalists from 378 media organizations. This has been good news for the Foreign Correspondents Club, which almost doubled its membership to 365 in the two years up to 2007.

Beijing officials--especially those in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Council Information Office—have become more sophisticated in their efforts to shape China's image overseas. Many of them have better understanding of how journalists operate and why. They now get it when we speak of the need to get accurate information promptly. They have lifted restrictions on where journalists live and set up offices. They now allow us to freely choose our assistants, instead of forcing us to hire Chinese staff exclusively through the Diplomatic Service Bureau. Most significantly, it's been eight years since China last expelled a foreign reporter. Sure, for reporters in most other capitals in the world, these are no big deals. But for us in China, these are significant gains. China is considered a "hardship post", but it is also a privilege to watch the development of this huge nation in a state of flux—and report on it from a ring-side seat. Even better, we can cover this story without having to wear a helmet and a flak jacket.

Why care about China?

Imagine how different our world would have been had God chosen a Chinese couple, instead of Adam and Eve, as the first Man and Woman in Paradise: They would have eaten the evil snake instead of the forbidden apple—and we would not be speaking today of our Original Sin! I heard this joke a few weeks ago and I thought it aptly shows that, for good or for ill, China is important in our lives nowadays and its importance is bound to grow. Directly or indirectly, whatever happens in China will impact our lives. When China catches a cold, the rest of the world sneezes.

Recent big events in China

Three recent events illustrate this point: the Summer Olympics… I'm sure many of you turned insomniacs for several days last month, staying up late to catch on TV the spectacular ceremonies and games.

And I'm sure you've been closely following the milk scandal in China and its worrisome repercussions overseas including here.

And we should all follow the coverage of China's yet another space launch – this time, featuring China's first space walk.

That's because China is big and is bound to grow bigger.

China has thousands of years of continuous recorded history, but it is a country of constant change.

China’s opening up

When I look at the China of 2008, I see a very different country to the one I studied in the late 1970s and the one I lived in during the mid 1980s.

China under Mao and China now are as different as night and day. Although still a communist country, its market reforms over the past two decades have produced tremendous growth and change.

China now depends heavily on international trade, with exports and imports accounting for about 40 per cent of GDP. China has joined the WTO. It is one of the world's top recipients of foreign investment. Foreign joint venture companies produce about 40 per cent of the nation's exports. Building on their success with consumers at home, Chinese manufacturers are expanding overseas. Hai'er Group, for example, makes refrigerators in a plant in South Carolina.

China's insatiable appetite is making waves the world over.

China is already the world's top consumer of steel and copper and the world's number-two oil user, importing one third of its oil consumption. China has become the world's eighth-largest cosmetics market.

China's foreign exchange reserve is now the largest in the world, hovering around 1.8 trillion US dollars.

Still, per capita income is only around $1,300, and consumption is only about 40 percent of GDP.

That's because some 700 million of China's 1.3 billion people still live in the countryside. Of those, at least 80 million, maybe more, still live with less than one dollar a day.

Secrets behind ‘China Miracle’

So how did China pull off what some call the "China Miracle"? China's unprecedented economic boom came about by loosening controls:

Devolution of power from center localities;

Influx of foreign investment and trade;

Boom of private and collective enterprises;

Better information flow through the media, trade and tourism;

Unlimited supply of cheap labor from farms.

There's no doubt that many Chinese have benefited from reform and opening up. Quite often, however, some of these changes have been painful. China's economic explosion has produced many unintended consequences: income gaps, regionalism, rampant corruption, rising criminality and social instability.

The Chinese leadership is confronted by the daunting tasks that Deng Xiaoping left behind. The state-owned enterprises, the SOEs, are typically inefficient and unprofitable, draining enormous resources, and yet privatization does not offer an easy fix. SOEs employ some100 million workers who rely on their jobs for cradle-to-grave life support. Beijing has been pushing these SOEs to swim or sink. But by doing so, they have thrown many of employees out of work.

Regionalism remains a big challenge since economic power has slipped beyond the center in Beijing to leaders and entrepreneurs in the provinces, where "heaven is high and the emperor is far away." Consequently, the central government's revenue base in recent years has declined relative to the GDP. And the center's ability to impose its will across the nation is now relatively weak and limited.

Price of reform

Another price of reform is a serious breakdown of social order. Many Chinese are feeling less safe these days because crime is on the rise caused in large part by a widening wealth gap. The Ministry of Public Security acknowledged that cases of "disrupting public order" had reached 87,000 in 2005, up 6.6 percent from the previous year.

Corruption is now so rampant it has become one the top complaints of the public. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has described the fight against graft and corruption as a matter of "life or death" for the Communist Party because it threatens its very legitimacy. The government has enacted regulations and launched campaigns to curb corruption. Still it remains endemic. Senior officials have been prosecuted and jailed, even executed, to send a warning--"kill the chicken to scare the monkey", as the Chinese put it. Ironically, however, many errant officials get away with crimes while whistleblowers often face criticism rather than praise. In the past 20 years, according a government report, more than 4,000 corrupt Chinese officials have absconded overseas with at least $600m worth of public funds. That makes China the fourth-worst country in the world for capital flight.

Another big casualty is China's environment and ecology. China's economic boom has seriously degraded the environment. About 70 per cent of China's water resources are polluted. Air quality is poor and public health is affected. Pollution-causing accidents are common-place.

Uneven economic development has widened the income gap between China's rich and poor. China's richest 10 percent had an average of US$1,075 in annual disposable income. That's nearly 12 times greater than the US$91 held by the poorest 10 percent.

So you can imagine all these centrifugal forces pulling China in different directions. Beijing's leaders need to hold this country together--that is their over-riding goal--but that has become difficult because they have lost a few key tools of states-craft.

There is no more a modern-day emperor, a strongman, like Chairman Mao or Deng Xiaoping.

‘Get rich’ ideology

And there is no longer a dominant ideology. The Communist Party, some 70 million strong, still rules the nation, but many Chinese view communist ideology as irrelevant in their daily lives.

Deng Xiaoping encouraged the Chinese "TO GET RICH" and many are rapaciously doing so, but all too often at the expense of the integrity of the society, the state and the environment.

To many Chinese, money-making has become the over-riding goal, the new mantra. Many are spiritually adrift. China may be dying of chronic moral decay, and yet the leadership has no effective answer to fill the spiritual void. With widespread egotism, social malaise and lawlessness, China could one day implode. To avoid that, the leadership needs to institutionalize a set of norms and values that govern the people's diverse and often clashing socio-economic activities.

I see an enormously complex China. Great achievements stand alongside daunting challenges. But China has only done the easy part of the reform. Producing rapid growth rate or pulling off a manned space launch all seem much simpler to do than retooling China's economy, cleaning up the financial mess and curbing corruption.

There is a huge billboard in a Beijing intersection. I think it advertises Nokia phones or cognac. When I first saw that signboard some 30 years ago, it shouted the slogan NEVER FORGET CLASS STRUGGLE. Now, China's new leadership has a new slogan. SEEK A HARMONIOUS SOCIETY.

Wishing for China’s success

President Hu Jintao now calls on the Chinese to seek a harmonious society. Hu's goals -- modulating the market reforms but not abandoning them.

To me, this change in slogans—best captures China's dramatic shifts that I've witnessed in the past 30 years.

After years of chaos and isolation, of perpetual political campaigns, China is now locked into the global community through diplomacy, tourism, trade and yes, through the mass media and the Internet. After years of stagnation, China now is bursting with explosive energy—experiencing what economists call The Churn, or creative destruction—as it rapidly moves forward.

China now is part communist, part capitalist—and moving full speed ahead. I believe that China will plod along, sometimes in spurts but often in steady incremental steps, sometimes with an apparent vision, guided by five-year plans and other blueprints, and sometimes simply muddling through along a largely uncharted course.

For China's sake, and for our own sake, we should wish for China's success. We do not want China to catch a cold.