Advice to U.S. Journalists Heading to China: Be Careful

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Advice to U.S. journalists heading to China: Be careful

Headed to China as a tourist or as a reporter?

Careful.

Keep in mind what James McGregor recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "Journalists in China work in a hostile and paranoid environment."

Like the owl in the Washington, D.C., Press Club seal, keep both eyes open, and don't blink.

There are unwritten "rules" in China for the foreign press corps, as there were for the "China Hand" reporters in the 1930s - as they were called then - because you might get detained, expelled or, the worst-case scenario, arrested as many of them were 60 years ago.

In September, a British reporter for the London Independent, Andrew Higgins, was given the bum's rush by China and given one day to pack up and leave.

Higgins got in trouble after he had filed a story based on a "top secret" Communist document and interviewed Chinese dissidents. Earlier this year, Higgins and Andrew Browne, a Reuters news service reporter, had their luggage searched at a small Chinese airport in Yantai by Chinese security officials.

Recently I was invited to Nanjing, China, called Nanking in the old days, to lecture a conference at Nanjing University that was sponsored by the "Victims of the Rape of Nanking by Japan's military in 1937."

I accepted.

Before leaving, I interviewed several old-China-hand reporters who had covered China in the 1930s:

Tillman Durdin, now retired in San Diego, Calif., an eyewitness to Japan's military atrocities at Nanking for the New York Times, and I sighted Irene Kuhn in New York City. After the Pacific war broke out, she was the first American reporter to return to China, and covered China during the '30s for CBS.

Then there was my father, Jimmy Young, retired in Anderson, S.C., who helped open the first news offices for International News Service in Shanghai and Peking, now Beijing, in the 1930s, when he was bureau chief of INS, in Tokyo, Japan.

My father was arrested and imprisoned in 1939 by the Japanese for his stories about Japan's military use of bacteriological and chemical weapons in China.

Because of timing, I missed interviewing Arch Steel, now retired in Phoenix, Ariz., who was at Nanking in 1937 for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News.

Both Durdin and Steel were eyewitnesses to Japanese military atrocities, as was Leslie Smith of Reuters, Yates McDaniel with AP, and Arthur Menken, a photographer for Paramount Newsreel.

An interesting anecdote is that Durdin and Steel left Nanking together, onboard an American gunboat sent to pick them up at the Nanking docks, which I visited, on the Yangtze River. Unknown and journalistically perplexing to Durdin is how Steel broke his story first in the U.S., as the ship's radio operator refused to transmit Durdin's story to the New York Times.

Carrier pigeon?

Heading to China in mid-August, I carried several front-page stories of the old New York Journal American, printed in 1943, concerning Japan's military atrocities in 1937. My father had donated them to the Scripps family [newspaper] museum in Rushville, Ill.

However, just as I was leaving, Chinese authorities faxed that the "official" forum was canceled but still "invited me to come," and Dan Thomasson, bureau chief of the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, asked if I would cover the now "unofficial" forum.

The conundrum I faced was how does one cover illegal, by China's "unwritten" rules, unofficial meetings.

Very carefully.

Arriving in China, I learned that several overseas Chinese, along with seven Japanese groups, were quietly holding their "unofficial forum" at a downtown Nanking hotel in clear violation of China's "meetings law."

And I got very nervous.

Fear of everyone being arrested surfaced when we learned that four foreign women, authorities in Beijing, two of them Americans, had been arrested by Chinese several hundred miles north of Nanjing. …