ONTARIO, Canada - “You have to be blessed with luck.” This is how, jokingly or seriously, Jaime FlorCruz, CNN’s Beijing Bureau Chief answered The Philippine Reporter, when asked about how to succeed in his field.
It is understandable why FlorCruz responded that way after relating his ordeal and inspiring journey, before getting to where he is now.
In 1971, a Philippine youth delegation composed of 15 student leaders were invited to go on a study-tour in China sponsored by the China Friendship Association. The visit was only intended for a three-week tour but while in China, the political situation in the Philippines changed abruptly after then President Ferdinand Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus - which allowed the regime to detain political opponents indefinitely. The youth leaders got stranded.
Due to the unstable political condition in the Philippines, along with the likelihood of getting arrested if they go back to Manila, the Filipino students faced a difficult decision: to stay in China or go back home.
“It was an individual, heart-breaking decision whether to go home or stay behind,” relates FlorCruz.
“I was one of the five students who couldn’t go home because we were on a blacklist,” says FlorCruz, then a 20-year old student leader at the Philippine College of Commerce and president of League of Editors for a Democratic Society (LEADS), a national organization of student editors.
“The bombings in the Philippines in 1971 changed my life,” says FlorCruz during a meeting with the press. “Days later, our hosts brought Philippine newspapers to China, for us to get information about the suspension of the writ and the rampant arrests.”
Life in Beijing
Few months had passed and there was still no window of hope that the five men who chose to stay behind could go home safely.
“After several weeks in limbo, we developed a Cabin Fever Syndrome, in which little things irritated each one of us. It wasn’t healthy, so we decided to work, it’s time to escape (from boredom).”
FlorCruz volunteered to work at the state farm in Hunan Province, Mao Zedong’s hometown, for almost a year, and subsequently in a fishing corporation in Shandong Province.
“It was an exciting work at first, and that experience made me realize that farming is not an easy task,” he says.
In September 1972, Martial Law was declared in the Philippines, so it shut the door for FlorCruz and his companions from going home soon.
“It was a series of hope and disappointment. For those who went home, they knew what they were facing, but for us who stayed in Beijing, we didn’t know how long the wait was going to be,” recounted FlorCruz. “We resigned ourselves to long years of exile.”
After the Martial Law declaration, FlorCruz became stateless because his Philippine passport expired and there was no way yet to renew it.
Due to the worsening situation in the Philippines, instead of losing hope and staying mentally stagnant, Flor-Cruz decided to preoccupy himself with ‘China Watching.’
“I learned about the current events in China, the leaders, culture and the language. I borrowed an English-Chinese dictionary from an interpreter,” relates FlorCruz.
To learn the language in Beijing, he copied a borrowed English-Chinese dictionary by hand. That started in earnest his serious efforts to learn the Chinese language. Now, he speaks Mandarin virtually like a native.
The craving for education, this time for Chinese learning, was strong with FlorCruz, who is of pure Filipino blood. He studied at the Beijing Languages Institute, where he completed a three-year Mandarin and translation degree in two years.
In 1982, he received his B.A. in Chinese history from Peking University in addition to a B.A. in advertising degree at Philippine College of Commerce (now the Polytechnic University of the Philippines) he earned in 1971.
While studying, FlorCruz also taught English to Chinese professors at least twice a week at Peking University, and to college students at Peking Normal College. He also taught English songs in a Chinese national TV program “Let’s Sing.” He is also known for translating the lyrics of the famous Filipino song, “Bayan Ko” into Chinese.
The start of a Beijing career
According to FlorCruz, the normalization of China-U.S. diplomatic relations in the late 1970s paved way for many American media organizations to set up bureaus in Beijing.
Through the encouragement of a friend, Jan Wong, then working for New York Times, FlorCruz was hired as news assistant for Newsweek magazine even as he was still finishing his graduation thesis at Peking University. In that role, he read English and Chinese publications and clipped and filed interesting stories. He initially worked 12 hours a week.
His then boss, Beijing Bureau Chief Melinda Liu, encouraged him to write for the magazine. That gave him a foothold into the media profession in China.
“My big break came during the trial of the Gang of Four.”
His boss asked him to report on the trial, and he was resourceful enough to come up with a story that clicked with Newsweek. His reports contained telling vignettes based on the accounts of one of his students who was a son of the judge in the trial.
“For two consecutive weeks, I got a byline in Newsweek,” he says.
In 1982, he became a full-fledged journalist, joining the TIME Magazine’s Beijing bureau as a reporter and promoted to Bureau Chief in 1990 to 2000, after which he joined the CNN as the Beijing Bureau Chief.
In 1989, he also co-wrote the book “Massacre at Beijing”, a paperback that chronicled the student protests that shook China in the late 1980s which ended in a bloody crackdown in Tiananmen in June 1989.
FlorCruz is considered the dean of foreign correspondents in China. He has served as the president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China for two terms.
FlorCruz was also a recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2000. He was the first non-American to receive the prestigious fellowship.
“That time, the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow was only offered to American nationals. So when I was awarded the fellowship. they had to modify a rule that specifies that it’s for Americans only. From then on it’s now open to anyone who works for a major media organization available in the U.S.,” shares FlorCruz.
When he joined CNN in 2001, FlorCruz said he had little training for on-air television reporting. “I was put through basic training in New York and Washington and, days later, sent back to Beijing as CNN’s correspondent and Bureau Chief.” He said he had to apply Mao’s philosophy of “you’ll learn swimming while swimming.”
“I never imagined myself in front of a camera,” added FlorCruz.
Journalism in China
FlorCruz, believes that in terms of press freedom, China is not alone in its practice.
“There are restrictions. It’s still difficult, but it’s changing for the better due to the gradual but dramatic opening up in China and the growing sophistication of media handlers there,” says FlorCruz.
With media practice such as “attack and collect, defend and collect (ACDC)” (a phrase famous in the Philippine media), “taxi money” for press people exists in China. These also exist in other countries where there are corrupt media practitioners.
Overall, despite these discouraging practices, FlorCruz says, “It’s a rewarding thing to do, to cover events in such an important country,” with satisfaction of his experiences as a media practitioner in China. He said China gives him invaluable experience. “I have a front-row seat to a history in the making,” he says. “It’s cool.”
For many people, this could be an understatement, coming from the CNN Beijing Bureau Chief who started his journey as a young student exile in a foreign country whose language he had never spoken before. For sure, he had more than luck to be able to achieve this feat--a tough spirit to survive and excel, not to mention to stay sane being one of them.