Issue: 2016: Vol. 15, No. 2

Assignment China: An Interview with Mike Chinoy

Article Author(s)

Penelope Prime

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Dr. Penelope Prime was most recently clinical professor of International Business in the Institute of International Business at the J. Mack College of Business, Georgia State University from 2012 until 2020. She is the founding director of the China Research Center and managing editor of China Currents
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Center Director, Penelope Prime, talked with former CNN correspondent, Mike Chinoy, via Skype on April 15, 2016, about his recent project on the process of understanding China through the media.  This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

PP: To begin, please explain what the project is and where the idea came from.

MC: The idea for Assignment: China came out of discussions at the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute that Clayton Dube, who runs the Institute, and I, were having about how Americans and others understand or misunderstand China.  One of the things that became very evident was that most Americans get most of the information that shapes their views of China from the media.

As we looked at this and thought about it, having been a foreign correspondent for many years, it became very evident that most people don’t have the slightest idea how foreign correspondents actually work. The process of how correspondents gather information shapes the final product people see on TV or hear on the radio or read in the newspaper or a website.

So we began this very ambitious project to tell the story of the people who have told the China story for the American media over the last 70 years.  Who were these people, how did they end up in China, what did they do when they were the AP correspondent in Nanjing or Shanghai in 1949 at the time of the revolution, or the Time Magazine correspondent in Hong Kong in 1959, or trying to make sense of the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s without being able to go there?  What was it like to go to China with Nixon? What was it like to open the first U.S. news bureaus in Beijing after normalization?

We began by tracking down as many as possible of the current and former China correspondents and people who interacted with them. In the end we did well over 100 interviews.  The series ended up being a narrative of Chinese history from 1945 to 2015, but from the perspective of the people who were on the ground trying to make sense of it as it happened.  People talk about journalists writing the first rough draft of history, and so this is essentially an attempt to tell that first rough draft of history through the eyes and voices of people who were standing there experiencing it as it played out.

Some of these people have written books and memoirs but others had never written anything or spoken very much about their experiences.  And so in those cases this was really precious material that hadn’t come to light.  People were able to give us home movies and private photo collections and all kinds of documents, and then we dug very deeply into the archives of the American television networks, and archives of presidential libraries, and places like Pathé, and old photo agencies, and so on.  So we were able to assemble what, even to us, turned out to be an astonishing collection of material.

PP: In the end, you did 10 or 12 episodes?
MC:  We started out doing interviews for a documentary but after we did the first bunch of interviews, we said, Wow, this is more than just one single film. And it kept growing. One of the joys of doing a documentary in this way is not being a prisoner of a network, and able to distribute it through the U.S.-China Institute website and YouTube channel. In this day and age you don’t need CNN to have a distribution mechanism.  You can put it on YouTube and spread the word through social media and that’s what we’ve tried to do. And if it warrants a dozen episodes, then you can do as many as makes sense.  For me, coming from a news background, that was very liberating.  So in the end we have 12 episodes beginning with reporters who covered the Chinese Civil War from ’45 to ’49, and ending with the beginning of Xi Jinping’s era in 2012-2014.

For example, there’s one episode called “China Watching” that looks at the two plus decades when Western journalists were not able to go to China and had to sit in Hong Kong trying to figure out what was happening.  The circumstances of being one step removed created its own sort of—what’s the right word—it became kind of an art form different from conventional journalism in a lot of ways.  A type of “Peking-ology.” So part of our project was to track down people who were based in Hong Kong in the ’50s and ’60s, and early ’70s.

Another episode is about the untold backstory of the press and the Nixon trip, which is absolutely fascinating. And then there’s an episode at the end of the Mao era dealing with the first generation of reporters who opened bureaus in Beijing after normalization.  There is one on the 1980s up to ’89.  We devoted a whole episode to Tiananmen, partly because the story is extremely dramatic and partly because in terms of the American perceptions of China, it was really this kind of watershed moment that changed the way people looked at China, and in terms of journalism it was really important because it was the first time an upheaval of that scale was shown to American audiences; it was broadcast live on TV.  People take it for granted today. You expect to see live reports from anywhere and in fact, you can go live with an iPhone from anywhere.  So it’s hard to appreciate how revolutionary it was that I, working as the CNN Beijing bureau chief, could stand in the middle of Tiananmen Square with hundreds of thousands of protesting students behind me and do a live broadcast.

Then we look at the 1990s, and there are four episodes examining the period from 2000 to the present day.  The final episode called “Follow the Money” tells the story of how David Barbosa of the New York Times did his remarkable investigative reporting about the hidden wealth of the relatives of Premier Wen Jiabao, and Michael Forsythe, then of Bloomberg News, did the same kind of amazing reporting about relatives of Xi Jinping, which brought the story full circle because you ended up with a lot of the reporting for this being done back in Hong Kong.  Also as the Chinese got more muscular in their dealings with the international press, people had trouble with visas.  For example, Forsythe ended up back in Hong Kong. The irony is you have a different kind of China watching, in which instead of reading the tea leaves of the People’s Daily, people are going through public financial documents of companies in which relatives of senior officials have lots of money invested, or going through property records to see multimillion dollar apartments.  So it seemed to be a good place to end it.  But it’s a pretty comprehensive look at the kind of major moments in Chinese history from the end of World War II to today.

The idea as we put this all together is that primarily the goal here is that this material can be used in the classroom, but by no means is it exclusively intended for use in class.  The 12 episodes provide a foundation for a course that could be used in journalism education on covering China, but each episode is self-contained and so you can watch one without having to watch the others, although there is a cumulative effect, particularly because a lot of the same characters appear in multiple episodes and you get to know them better and learn more about them.  But if you were teaching a course on recent Chinese history or international relations, the episode on the Nixon trip, for example, and the role of the press in the making foreign policy, would fit well.  There are also lessons in how the Chinese economy works today, for example with the episode on the hidden wealth of relatives of Chinese leaders, and many other possible lessons embedded in each episode.

PP: A theme that runs through the episodes is this relationship of the foreign press with the Chinese government, and it seems like it ebbs and flows.  Sometimes it’s more open, then it’s more closed.  Can you comment on that and then on what the current environment is for foreign journalists in China?

MC: There’s a permanent tension between the foreign press and the Chinese government.  The Chinese kicked all the Americans out in 1949 and with very few exceptions didn’t let any of them back on a regular basis until the late ’70s. But what you have here is a permanent tension and it waxes and wanes, depending on the overall climate.

For example, around the time of normalization there was this American love affair with China. Deng Xiaoping was the cuddly Communist who went to Washington and wore a cowboy hat when he met Bush in Texas. As a result, there were friendly stories as the reforms took hold: the first restaurant, the first private store, and so on.  And the government was sort of okay with that.

But journalists wanted to go deeper.  This theme runs through all of these episodes, going over years and years of how journalists pushed the limits, how hard it was to meet Chinese people, how hard it was to have Chinese friends, how difficult it was to get any authoritative information, being followed, being bugged, being hassled.  And to some degree it’s always there.  When the political climate in China is looser, it’s less evident and the limits are broader.

For example, the late 1980s – which is when I first was based in Beijing in ’87, up through Tiananmen – was a remarkably open time and everybody who was there then remembers it as a time when you could really meet people, and there was this tremendous lively positive engagement, which the authorities didn’t like, but they didn’t push back that hard.

And then after Tiananmen, there was a very deep chill; and then in the ’90s, again, as the economy began to pick up, it became easier to meet people as the story shifted from political repression to economic growth.  But over and over again, it happened where the journalists got in the firing line.  Part of what journalists do is to report on issues and tensions in the society and so when journalists went to talk to dissidents, Falun Gong activists, human rights lawyers, etc., they came under all sorts of pressure.

And then there was a period around the Olympics when the atmosphere again relaxed very considerably because the Chinese promised the Olympic committee there’d be a more open China.  That was when they changed the rules so that you could travel more freely.

But I would say starting at the end of the Olympics – 2009 onward – the climate got tighter, and I think the key turning point was 2011, which was the so-called Jasmine Spring. I think the Arab Spring really freaked out the Chinese authorities, and there were these calls on the internet for demonstrations in Beijing. Nobody knows whether it was just a few Chinese exiles in a basement on a computer in New Jersey putting this out, but the authorities totally flipped out. When journalists started going to Wangfujing Street to see whether anything was happening, there was a really, really aggressive push. This expanded into a degree of intimidation that we had not seen in a very long time.  Journalists got phone calls in the middle of the night, security people were going to their homes at 5:00 in the morning and threatening, “You better not cover this.”  It is unlikely that anything remotely like what was happening in the Middle East was happening in China, but Chinese officials were nervous, combined with a sense of assertiveness more generally in Chinese behavior that comes from their sense that the economic crisis of ’08 and ’09 showed the West was in steep decline and China was on the rise, and they have muscles so why not flex them. As a result, there has been an attempt to not only control the narrative of the Chinese press, which has always been there and has gotten much stronger, but they’re now trying to extend that to the foreign press.  And so you had a very, very difficult period.

The other thing is that even though the rules officially say you can travel anywhere and talk to anybody who’s willing to talk to you, the fact is that local authorities either haven’t heard of, or don’t pay any attention to that. Journalists discover when they go around the country, local thugs paid by the local authorities often go after them, beat them up, take their gear, or intimidate people, prevent them from talking to people, or retaliate against people to whom they try to talk.  So for many stories, it’s almost like guerrilla war now, where a reporter goes in, gets what they can, and slips out as quickly as possible.  And then the investigative reporting I mentioned – Barboza at the Times, and Mike Forsythe at Bloomberg, as well as The Wall Street Journal – around corruption of the Bo Xilai case, I think also contributed to the sense of anger at the foreign press and the determination to try and curb that.  So a lot of news organizations have had trouble getting visas.  It’s eased up slightly compared to 2012, ’13, and ’14.  But it’s still a very tough assignment.

On the other hand, I think a lot of journalists feel that it’s such an amazing story, and it’s such a big complex country that the government can’t stop you from doing everything, and there’s still a lot of amazing things that one can do.  So even today it’s much easier to operate as a journalist, and it’s a much more open society than it was 30 years ago, but it’s tough and you have a government now that if you cross lines, and say things the government doesn’t like, you’re going to hear about it, and sometimes more.  There was a French journalist who wrote a commentary about Xinjiang after the Paris terrorist attacks last fall that challenged the government’s narrative that all dissidents in Xinjiang are terrorists, and as a result she was forced to leave.

So it is a very difficult place because the Chinese are much more willing to push back on the foreign press now that they feel “We’re a big power; we can throw our weight around.”

PP: The other change is that now Chinese journalists and media are going all over the world and reporting back in China.  This is new and I just wonder: do you have any sense about whether that is influencing the media in China, given that they understand they want to get information too?

MC:  It’s a really interesting question because you do now have Chinese foreign correspondents showing up at all the conflict zones, and I think a fair amount of what they do is just straight news reporting, particularly when it’s not an issue that is too sensitive to China.  But when it is, the reporting either in the original form or once it is edited is shaped to fit the narrative.  There was a debate I know among many Chinese journalists about the fact that CCTV now has a big English language service, and some people see this as just an attempt to project soft power, and it is.  But I’ve known Chinese who work there who said, This is a good thing because if we want to be credible, we can’t just be party mouthpieces, we have to do more.  That pushes things in the right direction.

Maybe four or five years ago there was some hope that that was the case but I think the direction it’s going now is not great and so it will be interesting to see how this affects the way Chinese operate internationally.  If the media has to be such a loyal tool of the Party, at what point can it still credibly report things internationally?  But it is true that the Chinese have put a lot of money into it and they’re making these services available like CCTV English for free in many parts of the world, and it’s pretty slick.  So it’s a very interesting trend, although if the ultimate overall situation in China continues to tighten up, it’s hard to know how appealing that’s going to be or how skillfully that image can be softened in presentation for the rest of the world.  I don’t honestly know the answer, but it’s a very interesting question.

PP: Underlying that there is this expectation that journalists want to be professional, and I think that’s true across China and across the world, so that’s a good trend.

MC: Many young Chinese now, and I’ve taught some of them, are studying at journalism schools outside of China in the West and they’re absorbing some of the ideas and values of Western journalism.  And it raises a very interesting question about what happens to somebody like that when they go back to China with their newly minted master’s degree in journalism from a good U.S. journalism school.  How can they apply their skills?  I think it’s difficult, to be honest, and I think a lot of people are going to be quite disillusioned.  On the other hand, these are people who have had those influences, and if they stay in the media and communications world, in 15 years they’re all going to be significant, influential players, and nothing in China ever stays the same.  I do think the tightening we’re seeing under Xi Jinping is not another shift back and forth, as we saw on and off from the late ’70s on, but this is something more substantial and possibly more enduring. But nothing stays the same forever.

PP: Very interesting. Your project is a valuable contribution to the China field, to history, and to journalism.  How can people access the episodes?

MC: All of the episodes are available for free at The U.S.- China Institute website

Several of them have Chinese subtitles and eventually all will be available with Chinese subtitles. There is also a thumb drive that has all 12 of the episodes (the non-subtitle version).  The complete series is available for a $45 donation, which includes shipping and handling. If you’d like the complete set, please send a check for $45, payable to the University of Southern California with “Assignment: China” in the memo field, to:

USC U.S.-China Institute
University of Southern California
(Assignment: China)
3502 Watt Way, ASC G24
Los Angeles, CA  90089-0281