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

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

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?


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.

So there I was, the only American reporter-lecturer, interviewing several Chinese dissidents, and meeting with overseas Chinese and representatives from seven Japanese groups to discuss Japan's pre-World War II military altrocities.

I was blatantly breaking several Chinese laws.

Taking the bull by the horns, I questioned Chinese officials at the No. 2 National Archives in Nanjing, whom I met with, and asked point-blank if I would be arrested.

After a lengthy discussion, my Chinese translator, Liu Jing Xiu, with a slight grin, told me that "The government position concerning the |unofficial meetings' you are attending is: |Zheng yi zhi yan bi yi zhi yan.'"

With an even bigger grin on my face, I asked, "What does that mean in English" and was told it was a Chinese euphemism.

Liu said, "The PRC government |has one eye open and one eye closed' concerning the unauthorized meetings you are attending." He poignantly noted that since the forum organizers had not called the foreign news media or held a press conference that the "unofficial meetings" would "probably be allowed to continue."

Well, I blinked when I heard this. Returning to my hotel room I called Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times reporter in Beijing, and explained that things were a wee bit dicey in Nanjing. He laughed and said he understood my predicament and would keep his ears open.

Kristof hung up and I heard a familiar "second click" and wondered what would happen next, now that I had contacted a fellow journalist.

The permanent press corps in Beijing live in a militarylike environment and are assigned to designated government compounds just as the press was in the 1930s.

Soldiers guard the press housing compound and cameras are mounted on rooftops, doorways, and in elevators for press "security." One should assume the phones and room are bugged and that your "guides" will report back everything you say or do.

How one can get in hot water was poignantly explained in a Knight-Ridder newspaper story by their Beijing reporter, Michael Browning. He wrote that "Chinese officials were outraged over a so-called impromptu memorial service by three members of Congress in Tiananmen Square, Sept. 4."

A Chinese Foreign Ministry official, Wu Jianmin, told Browning, "This was a premediated farce which could only arouse the great indignation of the Chinese people" and "Dignified people like the Congress members hid from their hosts and went to Tiananmen Square to carry out illegal activities in [clear] violation of the relevant regulations of the Beijing municipal government."

Browning's story concerned a congressional delegation, lead by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., along with Congressman Ben Jones, D-Ga., and John Miller, D-Wash. This congressional trio tried to pull the wool over their hosts' eyes when they told Chinese officials that they were "too tired" to visit the Forbidden City as scheduled. Then staff members called ABC News and tv crews from CNN and NBC to tip them off that something was going to happen.

It did. China "blinked."

Chinese security police and plainclothesmen quickly closed in on the delegation and detained foreign film crews who were covering the antics of these three U.S. legislators.

Up until this point this well-meaning but headline-hungry congressional delegation, along with the news media in Beijing, had been treated with "unusual respect," Browning wrote, by their Chinese hosts.

The anomaly to this media incident is that Chinese authorities play a bifurcating role when it comes to the foreign press corps.

Because the Chinese authorities allowed me to, I interviewed and photographed dissidents, attended and wrote about "illegal" group meetings - which included foreigners - and, at a large outdoor demonstration, I helped display not one but two huge 30-foot banners in public that condemned "Japanese military atrocities in 1937."

China did not blink.

One of the rare times that China did blink was when I was allowed to visit and photograph one of their missile tracking stations. When they ran a computer simulation for me, I pushed my luck and asked for a copy of their software program to take back to the United States.

After "blinking several times" my Chinese guide-translator politely said, "You have a most unusual humor for an American journalist. You shouldn't ask such a question!"

With excellent perception, Browning wrote: "Foreigners [including the news media] adventure nothing more painful than a run-in with the police, a bilingual lecture on obeying China's laws or, in grave cases, being hustled out of China sooner than they had planned," as these misguided politicos and news media folks found out.

Being bugged can also work to a reporter's advantage.

I never had a problem placing a phone call in China or faxing stories back to the U.S. When I did, because I was in a flooded area of China, I would ask the operator for help, who always came on the line right away, and my call went right through.

Remember, everything you say or do in China is "open secret."

President Bush, who is paranoid over press leaks, and a China hand himself when ambassador there, would probably love to use a page or two out of China's unwritten "media rules."

So hand-carry your documents and films on every flight, and make prior arrangements with the carrier if the two-pieces-per-passenger rule is enforced.

United Airlines is still looking for my oversized document box they lost which they would not let me carry on board on my return flight from Hong Kong to Columbia, S.C.

Ironically, Chinese officials carefully "watched" - guarded is a better expression - the old U.S. newspaper clippings I had carried to China.

Give airport personnel your film and tapes in a "clear" plastic bag so they can see what your are carrying, as older X-ray equipment is used at many Chinese airports.

Take a good supply of batteries, tapes and film. Do not bring them back. Barter or give them as gifts to your hosts. Besides, this leaves you room in your luggage to pick up some Chinese gifts for your boss.

Make sure you have all your shots, even though they might not be required.

As my father warned, take a hefty supply of Hershey bars and raisins, and several plastic bottles of Cremora - as cream in China tasted like goat's milk - and instant coffee. You might even take some "instant" rice with you because I never saw a bowl of rice in China except at local restaurants which my hosts did not encourage me to visit.

Most important: Take the office telephone numbers, unlisted home number, and fax number of everyone you are going to see, with you. The phone book in your hotel room is thinner than the classified ad section of the Narragansett Times, the weekly paper where I live in Rhode Island. This phone book is for all of China, not just the city you are in.

In public phone booths there is a cigar box-like container with a slot in it, for putting 10 RFMB in, an honor system. Try that in New York City!

When going out to eat, make a reservation and be careful to watch the time because, if the restaurant closes at 10:00 p.m., it closes, and do not ask for doggie bags.

The hot water in your room might be off when you return because China is energy-conscious. It does not waste fuel on foreigners who straggle in late at night.

Also, I do not recommend walking or "jogging" late at night, which you might be used to doing at home, and be extremely careful of "clandestine" meetings if someone approaches you to announce that he "has a document" he wants to give you. It could be a trap.

Hotel taxis are three to six times more expensive than grabbing a cab a block or two away, but do not ask this driver for a receipt unless you carry your own receipt book. The daily English-language paper, the China Daily, is "free" at your hotel. Some enterprising Chinese desk clerks might charge you for it.

The biggest rip-off is the large color tv set in your room. Punch in the numbers and you will probably see a VCR movie being run on the two working channels, and when I tried to use the shortwave radio I took with me, in the first hotel I stayed, somehow the BBC channels were "jammed."

So my unwritten rules are three simple ones to remember:

Rule One - China is ruled by an authoritarian government that will not allow large or small, as in the case of the congressional delegation in Beijing, demonstrations to be covered by the press.

Rule Two - China, for now, is pre-occupied with its own internal problems and will not tolerate any foreign influence, particularly the foreign press, whom they feel might bring undue foreign pressure in an attempt to change their present style of governing.

And Rule Three - When in China, do not blink.

PHOTO : Pat Young shown violating China's "unwritten rules" by helping to display a banner in public at a demonstration.

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