In 2020, with the full extent of the coronavirus outbreak still unknown, Chris Buckley of the New York Times received a phone call from a woman at the Wuhan Foreign Affairs Office in the People's Republic of China. It was a few days into the lockdown. "We know you are here. We would like you to leave," she told him. "I guess one interpretation of it," said Buckley, "was they wanted to get press out of the city."
This anecdote is included in a new collection of stories, testimonies and writings by American journalists who have covered China, collected by Mike Chinoy, himself a former American correspondent in the country. Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in the People's Republic offers a fascinating glimpse into Chinese history as seen through the eyes of outsiders from the 1945-1949 Chinese civil war to Covid-19. The book also chronicles the Chinese Communist Party's evolving relationship with the foreign press. You get a sense of how Beijing wants to be seen, as well as how the CCP makes sense of itself in the process.
The Chinese civil war offered American reporters a relative degree of freedom and the warring parties seemed open to the presence of foreign journalists. John Roderick of Associated Press wrote, "I saw Mao practically every day in the small downtown area, or at dinner or dances. The leading communists were dressed in their padded woollen clothes because it was wintertime, they all danced around rather awkwardly. Mao was there, and he danced. It was Western music… Mao had a price on his head by the Chinese Nationalists for two hundred thousand dollars, yet he walked around, often alone or with one single bodyguard." The eagerness to court Americans did not last and after the CCP's victory and full takeover of China, Western reporters found access to the People's Republic greatly restricted.
Indeed, it would not be until Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972 and the normalisation of relations between the US and China, that American journalists regained access to the country. This, though, proved to be a challenge for the Chinese authorities, which were unused to dealing with foreign reporters. To make matters more complex for Beijing, Nixon insisted on television crews being allowed access everywhere to document his visit. This often led to misunderstandings with the local authorities, as Robert Siegenthaler of ABC News found out after filming in Tiananmen Square: "In those olden days of colour television, they were going through the sequential registering of the camera in red, green and blue, the primary colours. Later in the day, I had a meeting with my counterpart. Someone had reported that the crew was disrespectful to Chairman Mao because they were filming him in blue."
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However, the relationship between Western TV crews and the Chinese authorities was often complex, and it varied over time, situation and institution. Sometimes they would give the appearance of being more open to Western journalists reporting in their country and other times they would try to shut them down. As Bruce Dunning of CBS News observed, "They knew how to handle print people, but TV kind of scared them, so they were very cautious."
What comes across in Assignment China… is that, following the opening of China to the world from the 1970s onwards, both foreign reporters and government officials were experimenting with the boundaries and they both seemed to have been unsure of where they were. Chinese officials don't come across as playing a strategic cat and mouse game with reporters over the decades; rather they appeared uncertain about where the limits should be. In recent years, some of these restrictions have become clearer.
A good example is the issue of the Uyghurs, about whom Melissa Chan, a Chinese-American correspondent with Al Jazeera based in China. recalls an amusing episode. Chan went to Xinjiang province with a Chinese woman and a European. The local authorities wanted to stop them from reporting and heard that Al Jazeera was there. However, they assumed that since it was an Arab network, "they were literally looking for three Arabs with turbans." The authorities saw the three with cameras, but because they didn't "look Arab", they walked away.
Some reporters have gone to great lengths to get the story that the Chinese state does not want to be told. Megha Rajagopalan of Buzzfeed, for example, slipped out of her hotel in Kashgar to get access to the so-called Uyghur "re-education camps". She wrote: "It was this huge compound with very high walls… They had big gates, and there was a little police kiosk… I took a picture and got chewed out by police guards." American reporters who fell foul of the Chinese authorities were often expelled from the country, a relatively minor punishment in the context of how the state deals with dissidents.
Assignment China… is an engaging way to view the changing and evolving relationship between the United States and China. The tension between openness and closeness, between boundaries and open horizons is the place in which foreign correspondents often find themselves. At a time when balloons are making the news, it is important to get an angle on the people bringing us the news. The reporters in question are diverse and hold a wide range of different opinions, which makes this collection a real treat to read. It offers us a glimpse of the first rough draft of history, as the drafters themselves experienced it.