Covering China: The headaches and joys we endure as journalists in the middle kingdom

A Q&A with CBS News Asia correspondent Ramy Inocencio; China AP bureau chief Ken Moritsugu; the Telegraph’s China correspondent Sophia Yan; and Los Angeles Times correspondent Alice Su 

Strangled by a Chinese security official while reporting on education reform in Inner Mongolia. Hit in the face and harassed by 30 men on the way to a Muslim shrine in Xinjiang’s Gobi Desert. Chased away by rock-wielding villagers while looking for COVID’s origin in bat caves of remote Yunnan province. Marooned outside of China because of the worst political tensions between Washington and Beijing in a generation. 

These are some of the most stressful experiences that AAJA members reporting in China have endured in the past year. 

Working as a foreign journalist in China comes with unique physical risks and psychological stresses. But with resilience, language preparation, and a hunger to cover the world’s most important rising country, a chapter in China can be one of the most rewarding and memorable times of a reporter’s career. 

When N3Con 2021 asked me to share my experiences covering China, I realized I could not do this alone. China is just too big and too diverse for one journalist to do this justice. And even though I am officially based in Beijing, my job had me in Hong Kong for much of 2019 covering the mass pro-democracy protests, stuck in Japan for the first half of 2020 because of COVID border bans and now stuck outside of mainland China, back in Hong Kong, because of U.S.-China politics. 

So I had to bring in my friends and fellow AAJA members to share their thoughts too about the headaches and joys of reporting in China: China AP bureau chief Ken Moritsugu and former AAJA-Asia chapter president, the Telegraph’s China correspondent Sophia Yan and board member of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China and Los Angeles Times correspondent Alice Su, all in Beijing — and by way of a self-introduction, myself as CBS News Asia correspondent and also a former AAJA-Asia chapter president, hoping for my return to mainland China.

Here are the highlights we talked about, in Q&A format. I’ve lightly edited our conversations — about half an hour each on the Signal app for security purposes. Hopefully we all inspire you to follow in our footsteps once we’ve departed (or been kicked out permanently) from one of the world’s most fascinating, trying, joyful and curious countries. 

What’s the biggest headache working as a journalist in China?

Ramy: I’d have to say it’s the current state of U.S.-China relations. By all accounts it’s the worst since the normalization of ties between Washington and Beijing in 1979. And it’s having negative repercussions on the ability of foreign journalists to work in China and, in my situation, to even enter the country. I’m currently stuck in Hong Kong because Beijing isn’t allowing U.S. journalists who work for U.S. news organizations back in the country. Interestingly, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said Americans who work for non-American news media and non-Americans who work for American news media can go in, but it’s two strikes and you’re out if you’re an American working for a U.S. news firm. 

Ken: It’s a lack of access to information. The first big challenge is how do you get information and how do you get people to talk? A lot of people are afraid to talk. On another level we’ve had a lot of issues with visas. It requires more time to manage that relationship with the government. There’s also a lot more management of our relationship with the government just to be able to get news. That absorbs a lot of time. Separate from the time we would think of as journalism. There are certainly instances where the authorities are officially or unofficially trying to prevent you from getting information or covering a story in a certain way. But there are people who want to speak out. It’s a matter of building trust with sources.

Alice: The thing that stresses me out the most is the difficulty of getting people to talk to you and then the repercussions that can happen to your sources. When people do talk, it’s incredibly rewarding. But oftentimes I have the experience of interviewing someone and then soon afterwards hearing from them in distress, saying they’ve been pressured and asking me not to use anything from our interaction. It’s a lot of pressure to feel I’m causing harm to people just by talking to them. The price that Chinese people are paying to talk to us is increasing. 

Sophia: The hardest thing is trying to figure out how to protect my sources and keep my plans under wraps. The police surveillance state is very real. In many ways we’re at the forefront of what’s possible with digital surveillance and how one can be tracked by the authorities. It makes it really hard if you’re planning a story especially on a subject that China deems sensitive — like human rights concerns. And of course the people you come into contact with, like if you go into a shop and buy a bottle of water – those people can be harassed by the authorities later. It’s just the way the system works here and the way the system views someone like me. In a way journalists are like kryptonite. It’s really sad, actually. If I show up in a village to report, it could mean trouble for these people. That’s an ethical concern for journalists: is the story worth these risks? I’m always so worried about my sources being exposed, because there’s a lot at stake.

What’s the biggest joy of living and reporting in China? 

Ramy: My biggest joy in China is the joy of travel across this massive, diverse country. During 2020, while most of the world was under lockdowns, China was already opening to domestic travel. While people in other countries were saying how they wished they could travel, we actually were. I biked through the karst limestone formations of Guilin over a week, hiked through the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Hani rice terraces of remote southern Yunnan, traveled to my old Peace Corps roots from 20 years ago in Nanchong, Sichuan province, and counted down to 2021 in Shanghai with friends. Politics aside, China is a beautiful country to explore and discover new wonders. There’s a new experience at every turn. 

Ken: China is the big story of the region — if not of the world — for the 21st century. How China evolves and interacts with the rest of the world is absolutely crucial to our lives. As a journalist, to be at the center of that story, it’s a great opportunity as a journalist to be here.

Alice: Getting on the ground and talking to people brings me joy. In the last year or two — when tensions between the U.S. and China were so strong — being on Twitter was like being poisoned by toxic mutual hatred. But offline and on the ground, I found there are all these human stories and incredibly brave individuals who are not what you see on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Those Chinese netizens are not not necessarily representative of what Chinese people really think and what Chinese people care about. 

Sophia: The culture, the food, the people…they’re incredible! China is often discussed as one giant monolith, but actually it’s a huge country with lots of different local languages, customs and cuisines. Being able to travel through this huge vast country, which is nearly a quarter of humanity — that’s always really interesting, to meet other people, in beautiful villages, in shiny new apartment blocks. For me, it’s fascinating to learn about their lives. 

What’s the worst experience you’ve had while reporting in China? 

Ramy: Getting run out of a village by angry, shouting people holding rocks in their hands. 

Our team — my cameraman, Chinese producer and bureau chief — had traveled from Beijing to remote Yunnan Province. Bat virologists several years ago had identified the closest known relative to COVID-19 in bat dung in an abandoned mine in this region. 

We were trying to find it. We drove up and down winding, muddy mountain roads, through a lush banana plantation, and even flew a drone over the mountains and nearby river. After about three hours someone noticed us. A car stopped and two men got out, told us there was nothing to see here – that no cave existed (which was not the truth) – and advised us to leave the area. We decided we were driving the wrong way anyways and turned around. 

At the bottom of the mountain, we were met by a group of several men and women — including the two men — who had blocked a road which was the way we wanted to go. When we tried to go through on foot, one man picked up a rock and took aim at me. That video is here.

I tried to talk to them in Chinese and asked them why they were mad and why they wouldn’t let us through. They only kept shouting that foreigners weren’t allowed as they pushed us back to our car. We got in and they tailed us for about 20 minutes until disappearing. 

We took a break to shoot some mountain scenery. As we pulled out to the expressway the same white car reappeared and tailed us again. We weren’t sure if they were trying to catch up to us to do something more. So we changed our plans to stay at a nearby hotel and instead drove four hours past midnight to Yunnan’s capital of Kunming and the safety of a bigger city and hotel. 

Ken: For all foreign media, our concern for our Chinese staff and the risks they face has increased in the past couple years. 

There’s always been pressure on Chinese staff, but there’s a sense that the monitoring of the staff and what they do has increased. It’s our greatest fear that anybody — whether Chinese staff or not — gets arrested or taken away. In the Chinese system you literally disappear until you reappear. Getting arrested and detained is our greatest fear.

There was an instance a few years back when one of our photographers was trying to take a photo of a person staging a one-person protest. And some big person without a uniform on was there. The photographer raised his camera up to try to take pictures and the guy smashed the camera down and into the photographer’s face. He survived. But these things happen. 

Alice: My Inner Mongolia trip. I went to Hohhot, the provincial capital, last year to report on sudden education reform that sparked a mass protest among parents and students. I was in front of a school trying to talk to people and was detained. 

It was normal to be detained, but what was unsettling about it was the person who was in charge of me was very aggressive and physically violent. I was taken to the back of a police station to this special room where there were cells that were covered with sound-proofing padding and metal bars. A man who wasn’t wearing a uniform was being very aggressive with me, and when I moved to take my phone to call the U.S. embassy, he put his hands on the two sides of my neck, pushed me into a cell and locked me in. 

So that was really scary.  But it turned out ok in the sense that after an hour or so, they put me in a conference room and I had uniformed police around me and dealing with me. After a few hours, new people showed up who introduced themselves and took me to the train station to leave.

Sophia: I was just in Xinjiang. We had a number of incidents in the field. 

The worst was when we were walking down this small dirt path trying to get to a Uyghur shrine in the desert and out of nowhere, 30 guys in plain clothes showed up and they were physically aggressive. They were grabbing and pulling my backpack. They hit me in the face. It was really bad. And they detained us for almost three hours. 

They gave a litany of excuses: we were in a military administrative zone and couldn’t be there — mind you this was an open field. Then they said we were trespassing on private land; then they accused us of having snuck illegally into China because we were foreigners and it was impossible for us to get in the country with Covid. It was every excuse in the book. 

This one guy grabbed my neck and face while trying to restrain me. He had me in a sort of lock, and I couldn’t move. My lip was bleeding from being hit; I was wearing a face mask so I didn’t realize until after they let us go. Thankfully it wasn’t a lot of blood. They also hit my colleague, a videographer, in the face, too. We have quite a bit of this on tape, so you can watch it. It was really not pleasant to say the least.

China always says they’re open and invite foreign journalists to come visit Xinjiang, where they can report freely. That’s what the authorities say, but once you get there on the ground, the treatment you receive is not always exactly welcoming. It was really very jarring. 

What’s the most memorable food you’ve eaten in China? 

Ramy: This is easy. I’ll never forget the first hotpot I ate in China. It was goose intestine hotpot in Pengzhou, a suburb of Sichuan’s capital of Chengdu. I was fresh out of college, couldn’t eat spicy food at the time (much to the chagrin of my mother) and I didn’t know what I was actually eating. It was my first few months after landing in China in 2000 as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. Our group of volunteers were all doing summer homestays to learn Chinese and get accustomed to the culture. 

My host mother told me something to the extent of, “We will take you out to eat the famous food of Pengzhou. I will not tell you what it is until you eat it.” I was nervous. Goose intestines are long and look slimy. When you put them in the rolling spicy red broth of the hotpot vat, they curl up into shapes that look more like rubber bands. It was like eating chewy rubber bands. 

Truth be told, it wasn’t bad in hindsight. I just wish I knew what I was putting in my mouth beforehand. Now, Sichuan hot pot is one of my favorite Chinese dishes of all time. And it can never, ever be too spicy! Level up!

Ken: Lanzhou beef noodles with my wife Carmen. In 2018, while visiting China for work, we went out one morning in Beijing to look for something to eat and it turned out to be these Lanzhou beef noodles, originally from the provincial capital of Gansu in China’s northwest. 

But we had no idea what it was. We just saw a bunch of people eating at 8:30 a.m. So we went in. We really didn’t know how to order. We kind of pointed at stuff, were given a couple tickets, then gave those to two people — one hand-pulling the noodles and one cooking them.  It was absolutely delicious. We never had it before and it was a great breakfast. Another new discovery is Yunnan cuisine in the southwest of China which bears a lot of similarity to Southeast Asian cuisine like in Thailand, where I lived and worked before. 

Alice: River snail rice noodle! This comes from Liuzhou, a place in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Prefecture. I was with my colleague reporting  and he said, “We have to go eat this snail noodle because it’s my favorite thing.” It has this really strong scent that really clings to your clothes. I felt we were just marinating in the noodles. The smell doesn’t come from the snails but from this preserved bamboo shoot — a pickled bamboo shoot that Guangxi people like to eat. It’s so pungent and for the rest of our trip — four days — I felt like I smelled like snail noodles the whole time. But it was ok because everybody else smelled like snail noodles. It’s kind of like durian — you either really love it or you hate it. And a lot of people find it really overwhelming. But it’s really popular and I recently bought a ten-pack of snail noodles online.

Sophia: In 2017, I was in Zhengzhou, the capital of China’s Henan province (also where heavy rain led to severe flooding recently), and there were barbecued sheep penises. I’m not kidding. I was covering an entrepreneurial tech conference and we went out for local food and found this shaokao BBQ skewer place. They had many different animal parts for consumption. We ordered one but nobody dared to try it, so I just took a photo. It’s on my Instagram.

What’s an epiphany you had about China after moving to the country?

Ramy: Not so much an epiphany but the observation of society’s trajectory. When I first lived in China from 2000 to 2005, the country felt heady … like people were on an adrenaline rush. The energy felt palpable and positive. Living in China again from 2019, it feels like that enthusiasm has somewhat cooled off and people are more … perhaps the word is repressed. It may very well be in part because of COVID, but even after the virus was brought under control, Beijing seemed quieter than in the past. By 10 p.m., most streets were empty and neighborhoods quiet. I feel like the open golden years of China might have passed. There might be another. 

Ken: The geographic diversity of China — from the northern plains of Inner Mongolia to the very lush humid south of Yunnan. And in the west the mountains and deserts — the Gobi Desert and the Tibetan plateau. There’s a lot more to China than just the Forbidden City in Beijing. Also, almost all payments are done by mobile phone. It’s difficult to use cash and often impossible to use credit cards.

Sophia: It’s the variety of opinions that can still exist privately. People are less keen to share their true opinions in general, but for the younger generation — people in their 20’s and 30’s — I’m always surprised that still some of them don’t buy the propaganda line, the official narrative. These people are absolutely in the minority, but the fact there is still some plurality is interesting because people are bombarded by this one message – that the Chinese Communist Party is great – from the day that they’re born. But those people are often the ones choosing to emigrate, so maybe in another generation, maybe sooner than that, there won’t be such difference in opinion or thinking. But it always surprises me. China is not a monolith. 

For journalists daring enough to work in China, what do you advise they do first? 

Ramy: Expect to be told “no,” “not allowed,” “not able,” or “impossible” way more than you’ve ever been told in your life. There’s an interesting default to the negative in China when asking for a comment for an interview, permission to enter or film something or assistance with gaining access or for more information. Don’t let it get to you. China is more a place where you do first then say sorry later, rather than ask first. If you do ask first, it’ll almost always be no. This isn’t a rule for foreigners. This is common across the country. Because no is everywhere.

Ken: To be a successful journalist in China you need to be very resourceful. For example you need to use Chinese social media to know what people are saying, to be able to recognize stories there and to be able to pursue them to the source. That’s often very difficult. Even though social media is monitored, supervised and censored it is still a place where thoughts and opinions come out in a somewhat unvarnished form that can lead you to what people are really thinking.

Alice: You should have a VPN! The internet is not open! Be prepared and get up to date on cyber security, have more than one phone and one with a foreign SIM card. The other thing is try to learn Chinese. This is more and more important especially as it gets tougher to operate here. If you are Asian-American and have an Asian face, that’s a huge advantage because you can blend in more easily and you don’t raise alarms like non-Asian people do. 

But if you can blend in but you can’t talk to anyone, that’s still really tough. Especially now when I travel without an assistant or translator if you have to be on your own. Reading Chinese history is a good way to get in — modern history and Chinese Communist Party history. It helps to understand what’s happening right now. 

Sophia: Familiarize yourself with the language, the history, the culture — as much as you can learn about this place will be helpful because it gives you context when you’re covering it. As a journalist you’re never expected to be the expert, but having that kind of background knowledge will only help make your reporting better. And having some sense of the language is better than none at all. Every little bit helps. For instance, I learned a very paltry handful of words in Uyghur, the language spoken in Xinjiang. Maybe a dozen words and phrases, but that helped to indicate respect for the people there, and to at times spark conversation.

As journalists we are always strangers. We’re inserting ourselves into people’s lives temporarily and I think as much as you can do to understand the place and people you’re going to cover, that’s always beneficial, and people you meet will likely respond well to that.

What’s your favorite story you’ve reported in China?

Ramy:

CBS Sunday Journal: Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests
The people of Hong Kong have taken to the streets again this weekend to protest mainland China’s effort to roll back its freedoms. What is it all about?

CBS Sunday Journal: China emerges from the pandemic

Something nearly unthinkable has happened in China: a return to normal.

Alice:

Los Angeles Times: First a pandemic, then the floods: Villagers in southern China face devastation again

Los Angeles Times: “The youngsters, they are brave”: A Hong Kong boy band takes on China

Sophia:

The Telegraph: Inside Xinjiang

The Telegraph: Hong Kong Silenced

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