Thirty years ago, former ABC China correspondent Jim Laurie says, the human rights issue was among the most difficult topics for a foreign journalist in China to cover – dissidents, mostly sedentary writers and lawyers, made for boring video compared with dragon dances and bustling new marketplaces, making them a hard sell to editors back home. Now, of course, we’re scrambling over ourselves to get interviews with Ai Weiwei and other critics of the Chinese government.
For anyone interested in China’s sudden rise, and foreign reaction to it, it’s worth putting in an hour to watch the new documentary “Assignment: China,” available for free online at the web site of the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, which has interviews with almost all of the first generation of American correspondents to live in China after Nixon established diplomatic relations. It was made by Mike Chinoy, who arrived slightly later and served as a senior CNN correspondent in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei – and, in the interests of full disclosure, was a professor of mine in journalism school.
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Other than diplomats, there were almost no foreigners in China except journalists when this first group arrived. The contrast between their stories and my own experience is extraordinary – the journalists in the documentary talk about the Qianmen Hotel, a grimy concrete block where most of the foreign press corps was required to live, and sneaking out disguised in a Mao jacket in an effort to speak to ordinary people. Fox Butterworth, the New York Times’ first post-Mao China correspondent, tells the story of a young woman who opened up to him (off the record) about the sex life of Deng Xiaoping’s China and wound up in a prison camp for embarrassing the country. Today, I, like many young foreigners in Beijing, think nothing of living with Chinese roommates.
The film also contains interviews with the officials who managed foreign media at the time, including Yao Wei, the first head of Deng’s Department of Information. Yao, who didn’t have to worry about Chinese citizens reading critical foreign reporting online, had what seems to me now a remarkably close and friendly relationship with foreign correspondents. This attitude apparently ran far up into the leadership – Melinda Liu, who was with Newsweek, reminisces about the time Zhao Ziyang, the reformist Chinese premier whose career came to a sudden end during the Tiananmen protests, dropped by her hotel room for a talk.
Living in modern China, I often forget how quickly life in this country and its government, with its vast and unwieldy bureaucracy, has changed in the last few decades – and, by implication, how much it might change in the next few. Looking at a bit of the fairly recent past is a good corrective to some of the pessimism surrounding China, and a pretty remarkable story in its own right.