Covering China

CNN’s China bureau chief Jimmy Florcruz was FOCAP’s guest speaker for our second Teodoro Benigno Lecture Series. Jimmy went to China 37 years ago, in an “open ended tour” that turned into years of exile when the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law shortly after Jimmy went to China.

To earn his keep, he worked in a farm and later in a ship. He learned how to speak Chinese as well. When China opened to the world, the contacts he had made and his fluency in Mandarin (and also English) proved invaluable. Jimmy has broken many glass ceilings: he was hired as a journalist although he didn’t have a journalism degree, and English was not his mother tongue. Now he heads CNN’s China bureau although, as he himself pointed out, he doesn’t have that baritone voice or irresistible charm.
Columnist Nelson Navarro, who said he should’ve been on that trip to China with Jimmy, had a very good point: Jimmy’s idealism brought him to China, and though it didn’t exactly bring about the changes he was fighting for, “he made something out of it.”
Writer Mario Miclat, who went to China as a “volunteer revolutionary,” shared portions of his book on China, describing Radyo Peking, which until now broadcasts news in Filipino. The last time he visited Radyo Peking, Miclat said, the staff there told him they took up Filipino because they were told to. One of them told Miclat he/she does not understand the news he/she was reading, and forgets it as soon as the newscast is over.
The lecture was good, because the insights were both personal and invaluable. The contrast between Jimmy’s experience in China now and that of Miclat’s are also interesting: Jimmy said “Big Brother” is not that visible now, but Miclat said “he” is still very much around. One difference, I believe, is because Jimmy is a reporter now and Miclat is not. People relate to them in different ways, and there are some areas where Miclat can go that Jimmy cannot.
For those who want more details, here are my notes on the lecture. Again, a warning: this is incomplete and some of the sentences don’t make sense or are in direct contrast with other sentences (which means there are words that I missed or even phrases).
These notes would be more incomplete than others, because Jimmy talks fast and it was hard to keep up. He’s giving FOCAP a copy of his speech, though, which I will post here when we get it. Near the end of the Q&A, Jimmy was asked how he thought the US financial crisis would impact on China. He believes the exposure of the Chinese banking and financial system is limited. And, he added, there are some Chinese banks who might be interested in buying some of the distressed financial institutions. There might be a Chinese white knight waiting in the wings, but the question is, is the US ready for a Chinese bailout?

Jimmy Florcruz

We defied the rules and conventions and we paid dearly for our idealism and activism…marcos imposed emergency rule…and began 18 years of dictatorship. Along with four of my comrades in the group, I was blacklisted…open ended tour turned into years of exile in china. I was 20 years old, full of vigor and vitality. Found ourselves in unfamiliar place, did not speak Chinese, homesick, lonely. To earn our keep we volunteered to work in a state farm…lots of backbreaking work and lonely nights. Turned to studying Chinese…to deal with boredom and temper my raging testosterone, played badminton and took lots of cold showers…consoled ourselves…we are younger than marcos, we will outlive him…premium credentials when china opened up…but reaching those career goals took time and a lot of effort. Had to break glass ceiling…eight years to get hired as staff correspondent…had to work doubly hard…not attend ivy league school, not have journalism degree, English was not mother tongue…appointed time mag bureau chief, post held for 10 years…summer of 2001…cnn offered me…to cnn’s credit, they took me and took me at a risk. I believe I was hired for the job because cnn thought I knew china inside out, had a network of sources there, and very passionate about journalism and about china.

We frequently encounter bureaucratic footdragging…20 years ago, reporters visited nothing more than carefully guided…interviews. Getting information becoming relatively easy. When china was closed off to foreigners, china reporting relied on a small band of china watchers mostly based in hongkong or govt officials. They interpreted china in caricatures of what was going on in china, according to their own narrow notions and political agenda…at best…simplistic…worst, journalists became appendages of their govt and subjected to spin…china reduced to single frame images…image of china was little blue ants or automatons…in the 1960s, china was stereotyped more like the devious fu mang chu and seductively wily suzie wong, and they were figments of hollywood’s imagination. In 1970s….foreign reporting swung to other extreme. No flies in china. Cute communist cadre…a bit strange and inscrutable but ok bec us ally against soviet union. 1980s…china gone capitalist..glitzy images of disco…some Americans thought maybe Chinese had become like us….until 1989…tianenmen…left man of them feeling like jilted Chinese…these are one dimensional images and they are misleading. China was neither that rosy or that dark. Twisted govt policies…also warped Chinese impression of the outside world.
Trying to commit journalism in china has share of joys and perils…three ts and one fs. Taiwan, Tibet, and tianenmen…falun gong. In china, such treatment and the official considered part of the territory or part of the job. Signs of improvement in reporting environment…jan 2007…china issued set of regulations….foreign journalists no longer need to get permits…revised regulations expire next month. In the 17 months leading to Olympics used this to fight press regulations and harassment whenever confronted with hand in front of camera…recited rules and said approved by prime minister. Not always work for all of press corps..more than 180 cases of interference…most cases resolved with intercession of foreign ministry handlers. Other cases rules simply ignored. Annoying and inconvenient for us to be harassed, but biggest concern for Chinese sources and office assistants…we often hear from local sources and media, especially in media. Many Chinese seek redress of injustices…victims of land grabs and industrial accidents, turn to us as last resort. Result of breakdown in system, they have no one else to turn to and they turn to us.
In 1980s there were only scores of us chasing the same opaque stories…in 2002…already 353 journalists in china, from 199 news organizations. By 2007 the number up to 760. China is a terrific story to cover. One of the best perks is the chance to travel around this vast, diverse, energetic and rapidly changing country…so large and still hard to get exclusive access…story must be covered from bottom up and not from top down. Mean a lot of extra work for us…Beijing officials had become more sophisticated..restriction on where to set up offices. No longer obligated to hire from state run diplomatic bureau. No foreign reporter expelled for more than 8 years now. A privilege to watch a nation in a state of flux and sometimes take a ringside seat in history. One of the most compelling stories in international journalism today…without having to wear helment and flak jacket…imagine how different world would have been if god had chosen a Chinese couple…would have eaten the evil snake instead of apple. Whatever happens in china will impact our lives.
Three events: the summer Olympics. Closely following the milk scandal in china and its worrisome implications. Its bad news and china will need to deal with this public health and public relations crisis if it wishes to recoup its tarnished reputation. Tomorrow, china has another space launch scheduled tomorrow and this time featuring china’s space walk. It is a nation of constant change…see a very different country to the one I lived in and studied in the 1970s. different from now and under mao…produced tremendous growth and change. Heavily dependent on international trade now…40% of gdp exports and imports…building on their success with consumers at home, many manufacturers are expanding overseas…china’s insatiable appetite making waves the world over…become the world’s 8th largest cosmetics market. 27 yrs ago, women militia told us they don’t want cosmetics, just rifles. Biggest internet population, with 240m online. Foreign reserves largest in the world. Yet per capita income is 1,300$. Consumption less than 50% of Chinese gdp. Developing slowly in part because there are some 700m of 1.3b who still live in countryside. Some 80m, maybe more, live with less than $1 a day. Still lopsided development. Unprecedented econ boom came about because they loosened controls…also unlimited supply of cheap labor mainly coming from farmers dislodged from their farms…700m farmers but probably need about 400m to do farming…so they’re surging to big cities like Beijing to find odd jobs and to send cash home. At any point in the year there are 120m Chinese farmers…redundant, floating population, on the move, temporarily in the cities, doing odd jobs…ones who clean roads, build bridges…basically helping keep the cities going. There is no doubt many Chinese benefited from reform and opening up. Econ explosion has produced many unintended consequences. Criminalism…social instability…the biggest perhaps is the problem of what to do with the state owned enterprises. Inefficient, unprofitable, drain enormous resources yet privatization does not offer easy fix. Soes employ about 100m workers and rely on their jobs for cradle to grave life support. Beijing pushing soes to swim or sink but also throwing people out of work. Regionalism is problem bec after reform let go…power from Beijing to the provinces..heaven is high and the emperor is far away, they can do everything. Not everything is under Beijing control anymore and a lot of things are profit driven…another price of reform is serious breakdown of social order. Many Chinese feeling less safe these days because crime on the rise…public security of china admitted cases of disrupting public order…87,000 incidents last year. Corruption rampant in china…pm described as matter of life and death for communist party because it threatens the party’s legitimacy. Remains endemic. More and more erring senior officials have been prosecuted and sent to jail to send warning but whistleblowers often those who face criticism…income gap bet china’s rich and poor widening. Richest 10% has average $1,000…you can imagine all these unintended consequences as centrifugal forces that’s pulling Chinese in different directions. They no longer have a modern day emperor. The current leaders are like chairman of the board…gray officials whose main job to get things done. Not command gravitas that mao and deng had. No longer a communist ideology. Many Chinese view ideology as irrelevant to their daily lives. Most Chinese in day to day basis don’t see much relevance. Big brother also stepped back…still there but people have more personal space….trying to get rich all too often at expense of state, ecology…many are culturally and spiritually adrift. The leadership has no effective answer to fill spiritual void. How else explain why producers spike with melamine? It’s unfettered greed…also shows the lack of corporate social responsibility in china. The good news is all these are now in the lexicon of the Chinese govt and people, now in blogosphere…confident govt will be able to deal with this issue. But with widespread egotism, social malaise, lawlessness, china could one day implode. Leadership has to institutionalize a set of norms and put together and institutionalize these set of rules and values that could govern people’s diverse and now often clashing socio econ activities. Great achievements standing side by side with daunting challenges…done easy part of reform..rapid growth rate…sound simpler than retooling Chinese econ or cleaning up envt or curbing corruption…30 years ago…china was in middle of class struggle…now china’s leadership has a new slogan..let’s seek harmony or harmonious society..involves unity of man and nature, harmony among men, among nations. He calls on Chinese to seek harmonious society…goal to modulate market reforms without abandoning them…after years of chaos and isolation, or perpetual political campaigns, china now locked into global community through diplomacy…trade….mass media…after years of stagnation, bursting with creative energy…now part communist, part capitalist, and moving full speed ahead. Believe china will plod along…sometimes with apparent vision, blueprint, sometimes simply muddling through….for china’s sake, and for our sake, we should all wish china success. We don’t want china to catch cold.

Miclat: also worked in china’s mass media…as foreign experts for radio peking…run and administered by minister of radio, film and tv…heard news, commentaries and features…sources exclusively the xin hua news agency…most features also came from xin hua news agency…didn’t have to pay attention to topics such as three ts and one f. all news precensored for us by xin hua…news about foreign dignitaries visiting china…news about foreign countries usually about natural disasters or calamities…china opening up later…positive news about countries with whom china opened ties…
Quotes from book: in 1971…on Monday oct 25 two months after our arrival, alma and I received invitation to banquet. Asked to start working the following day. Expat salary ten times as much a Chinese salary….we came as revolutionary volunteers and hapy with allowance we received, about 50yen a month (about PhP300).

Those who stayed, kept mum…those who talked, go to hongkong.
Even as I was talking to them I felt big brother…I hope the freedom from fear lasts beyond…even this year of the Olympics.

Jimi: china so big and diverse whatever you want to find you will always find something that you’re looking for. There are still remnants of the old system…there are students without freedom of choice to study…most students now have wider choice…of what kind of boyfriend, spouses, where they want to live, kind of jobs they want to hold. When they want to move jobs, they can now move jobs…nowadays if you have money, if you just want to try your luck, there is a lot more space now for china and Chinese. But there’s still the big brother there. As long as you don’t thumb up the noses…as long as you don’t go to tiananman…most Chinese get away with criticizing govt policies around dinner tables and in bars. Still place where there are institutional controls, unwritten rules, taboos, and most Chinese have very good antennae, they know where the lines lie and they stay away from it. They have this bubble…where they can express themselves and seek their goals.

Still difficult to get access to Chinese officials, specially senior officials. Spent a lot of time cultivating sources…getting better, getting easier, some are becoming more sophisticated in performing their jobs. Many of them are young, educated overseas…average age of foreign officials have come down in recent years. Most of them are beginning to get it, they know what we want…changing china one big step was to tell Chinese officials what we do, what we need and why we need them. In recent years marked improvement among officials I deal with. They seem to get it. Help get access to their side of the news…otherwise lose by default…if you don’t talk to us now we will still write story and if you call us tomorrow it’s too late, your voice is out. Beginning to get it, importance of news cycle. Getting a scoop is hard…may have their own agenda…the Chinese are also getting the hang of spinning the news…spokesman system…something we assume here. China never had until about 5 years ago…appointed spokespersons for different bureaus…don’t always return call but at least now we know who to call, for a comment. That’s progress but in a way I don’t want them to get too sophisticated because that will get them into spinning.

Still subject to censorship controls in china. Because we are required by Chinese govt to beam signals in china through satellite the govt controls. 8 second delay between time they see it and allowed in. can black out parts of the story. I think that’s the last bastion of control that they will give up, if they do. I tell the Chinese officials it’s unfair bec print say same thing and they get away with it. This censorship is one of the unnecessary black image that china imposes on itself. China will not collapse even if you let it through…not many Chinese who get our stories and even if they hear our stories, so what…I think that’s part of process of china’s maturity and modernization…committed to becoming cosmopolitan and tightly engaged nation…

China…because they are more linked than ever with outside world…chinese must feel vindicated now that they had dragged their feet in opening their financial sector to the outside world…US pressed them very hard…whereas the Chinese held their ground and agreed on a more drawn out phased in schedule. So far Chinese is financially totally linked with western system…impact of financial system in china limited…some have exposure in lehman but still fairly limited…approach in very cautious and incremental way.

Some Chinese banks would be interested to buy stakes in troubled banks in US. The question is is the US ready with the idea that Chinese are buying in. It makes sense that china become a part of the solution to the financial crisis. There could be some white knights lurking in china to help save financial crisis in US. US would have to be very desperate to accept idea that Chinese are going to buy big stakes in the system.

I think the inner core of the communist party must be mulling this issue every day. The central party school I know has convened meetings of scholars looking into how to buttress their claim to legitimacy. There are scholars who are looking into eastern and western European models, social democracy…also scholars identifying problems…tinkering with idea of political reform…make communist party and Chinese govt more efficient, not really to make it less relevant. Still want to stay in power, know have to solve nitty gritty issues if they want to stay in power. Can no longer rely on dominant ideology and have people follow them.

You said one problems facing china is kind of leadership…colorless, gray, technocrats…what they would have wanted in beginning? Wanted lee kwan yew as model. Relations have eased…ready to wait until mainland china reached democratic progress and devt and can reunite peacefully?

Current leadership is younger set of technocrats, a few lawyers…grew up during agri rev so knew what worked and did not work in old system. Mindset influenced if not crafted by that era. They have both old and new thinking…well traveled, meet a lot of foreign visitors…that probably what china needs now is not much of a visionary but a doer, a set of pragmatic leaders who look at the bottom line rather than the party line. The issue of Taiwan, the recent election results in Taiwan bode well for stable relationship between mainland and Taiwan. Both sides agree instead of wrangling over policy or principal issues of sovereignty..they are shelving it aside and focusing on what’s happening on ground, more people to people exchanges, started chartered flights, soon will have scheduled flights, and more investments on both sides. Over the years the new set of leaders will have a clean slate as the old leaders pass away and the old animosities also fade. New sets of leaders on both sides will have new…of coming up with modus vivendi. Maybe.

Renato de castro. Role of nationalism…in ensuring cohesion in Chinese society…
Nationalism is almost like the default solution to this spiritual void. Probably the easiest solution they can find because easy to promote or stoke. The Japanese are there all the tiem, easy targets…latent in Chinese mindset…very proud to be Chinese but it’s what we call the 100 year humiliation syndrome that many Chinese still shoulder. 100 years subjected to exploitation…by foreign power…whenever they see any hint that is rearing back…they react. That happened to us, the media, there was this backlash of nationalism, anti foreign sentiment. The good part is more and more Chinese are beginning to realize Chinese should not overreact to criticism over anything. It’s counterproductive to be so sensitive and so overreactive…need to be disabused of the suspision that there is a western inspirted conspiracy to put down china and demonize china through the media and through democracy…

One child policy still imposed?
Yes it is there have been talks of loosening or changing that policy…the penalties range according to different provinces but penalties losing incentive to follow. They lose perks of state subsidies like milk for children or subsidized education…if they break rule they lose those, in some places impose cash penalty. Think china ready to allow a second child, demographic is changing. Population facing a graying population. In their interest to allow second child, have good reasons to stem the growth of population but now also have good reasons to allow second child. Won’t be surprised that in a year or two they will do so. Right now allow exceptions – if both parents are one child they can have second one. If one child dies they can have another…ethnic groups…muslims…allowed second or even third child.

Chinese don’t see it bad if we report about troubles in xinjiang bec it suits their strategic goal of linking the problems in xinjiang with the international campaign against terror. It’s in china’s interest to show that they do have this festering problem of muslim unrest in their backyard and depict it as something connected to al qaida network. More worried of xinjiang than of Tibet. Dissidents are relatively speaking better organized and maybe better funded.

South china sea issue involves sovereignty, very sensitive. No ifs and buts. Would rather keep under control, not want to spill over or lead to military or armed confrontation. Remain a phil citizen…china never really invite people to become their citizens.

Is there hope china would be more transparent?
Transparency remains a very impt issue in china…sars taught china very valuable and costly lessons. After sars Chinese govt and public appreciated the necessity and importance of transparency…Chinese have been more upfront than they would have been in the past…they would have just…denying…one big difference is bec the Chinese public is not the meek public we imagine them to be. Very assertive, very well informed. The blogosphere is all over the place. Public now is demanding accountability…it’s not quite what we would have done in rp or in some other countries having immediate and passionate reports but they get it now. The Chinese media, public gets it and the govt like it or not has to respond. Face difficult challenge of recovering reputation and rebuilding image of made in china brand. Not just matter of milk industry…involves the china brand. For that reason alone I believe the Chinese govt will firmly and effectively react to this. No other way. Otherwise forget about reform and open door.


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