Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #115: "Journalists on reporting in China and U.S.-China relations."
Bak Chan: Hello. Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon from beautiful Berkeley. Welcome to our program today, "Journalism on China and U.S.-China Relations: The View from Washington, Beijing and Berkeley.” My name is Bak Chan. I am Board Member and past President of the California Alumni Association Chinese Chapter, or CAA Chinese Chapter for short. We are the sponsor of today’s event along the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
For those who are not familiar with us, the Chinese Chapter is a descendant of the Chinese Student Club formed about 100 years ago to help local Chinese students overcome social barrier while attending UC Berkeley. It is one of the oldest and most active chapters of CAA’s 75 alumni clubs. In addition to organizing numerous events in the past, the Chinese chapter has, along with our sister organization, the UC Chinese Alumni Foundation, endowed over 35 scholarships which are awarded every year to deserving students at Cal, by far the most given by any individual or organization at Cal.
The Chinese Chapter was awarded Chapter of the Year six times by the CAA. We continue to sponsor social and professional events on topics that support our members and those related to Chinese culture, current society, and China’s increasingly significant role on the world stage. One of those events is the highly successful annual Berkeley China Summit and we’d love to see you there this fall.
Today, we have about 500 registered attendees combining the Chinese Chapter and Berkeley Journalism RSVP sites, showing just how important this topic is to many of us. Everyone here is aware of the heightened economic and political tension between the United States and China, manifesting itself most notably in the pandemic blame game, political sabotage, and ongoing trade war. One of the worrisome development recently is the rampant anti-Asian crime in this country, which could well be the byproduct of the negative perceptions of China as a nation during the pandemic and by association Chinese nations as a people. This phenomenon is often linked to the discourse of politicians and media organizations who might also hold the key to promoting greater relations between people and nations.
To help us navigate the complicated, but critical, international relationship between the U.S. and China, we are extremely fortunate to have join us today with two of the foremost journalists and foreign correspondents, Dean Geeta Anand of Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Mr. Edward Wong of the New York Times. Among the things they will discuss is the landscape of journalism in China, what role the government has in media coverage over time and biases that influence how American journalists cover China in other countries.
Geeta and Edward will explore how the prism through which foreign correspondents who view coverage of other countries can limit their ability to understand what’s really happening in the governments, cultures and daily lives of the people. They will also discuss U.S.-China policy, how it is evolving, and the influence of journalism in international affairs.
Geeta Anand is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author. She wrote the nonfiction book, The Cure, about a dad’s fight to save his kids by starting a biotech company to make a medicine for the untreatable illness which was made into a Harrison Ford movie, Extraordinary Measures, in 2010. She worked early in her career in the board of the Boston Globe. Most recently she worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. One of the favorite and fulfilling assignments in her career was spending nearly a decade in India, the country where she was born and raised, first as a foreign correspondent for the journal and then for the New York Times. She began teaching at Berkeley Journalism in 2018 and quickly rose to be the dean of the school last year.
The school has just embarked on an exciting new academic program to develop the next generation of journalism students interested in reporting on China. The objective is to improve breadth and quality of journalism written about China by offering special relevant training and possible student scholarships. I’ll have more details for you at the end of the program, but without further ado, let’s welcome Dean Anand. And she will introduce Mr. Edward Wong in a minute. Dean Anand.
Geeta Anand: Thank you so much, Bak. Thank you so much for inviting us to this event. This was your idea, and we are so thrilled to be here. Let me introduce Edward Wong. He’s a diplomatic and international correspondent for the New York Times who reports on foreign policy from Washington. He has spent most of his career abroad, including nine years in China as the Beijing Bureau Chief. He ran the New York Times’ largest overseas operation which is in China.
He holds dual master’s degrees in journalism and international affairs from none other than the University of California at Berkeley. He has studied Mandarin Chinese at the Beijing Language and Culture University, Taiwan University and Middlebury College. He was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Alexandria, Virginia. And we are very proud at Berkeley Journalism that he’s not only an alum of our school, but he is also on our advisory board. So welcome Edward. It is such a thrill to have you here as an alum of the school and also a former colleague of mine at the New York Times.
Edward Wong: Thanks Geeta. And I know it was great working on the international desk at the same time when you were in India and I was in China then.
Geeta Anand: I do remember those days fondly. So, let’s just dive right in. I think everyone here wonders what are conditions like for a reporter covering China, what are the conditions on the ground for journalists in China?
Edward Wong: Right. Well, I would say that people who have spent a long time in China, journalists who have spent many years or even decades there say often compared to pendulums. Sometimes they’ll swing towards looser conditions, more opening by the government, allowing foreign journalists to work more freely there. Other times it swings toward a tightening.
Right now, we’re in a period of tightening that I would say probably began shortly … sometime shortly after the 2008 Olympics and has gotten gradually tighter and really increased a lot under the current government run by president Xi Jinping who’s also the head of the Communist Party. But the Chinese government will say that they have reasons to tighten up controls on journalists, and part of their argument is that it’s because the Trump Administration in the last year or two really tried to limit some of the foreign journalists from China who are working in the U.S.
The Chinese government at one point decided to expel some of the largest news bureaus in China which include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, expelled most of the journalists for those bureaus, and there’s only a handful now remaining in China, only one for the New York Times actually. So, conditions are tighter and the U.S. officials both in the Trump Administration and the Biden Administration have criticized China for these tighter conditions, and have said that their own measures against Chinese journalists were simply in reciprocity for what China had been doing for a long time against American journalists there.
So, we’re definitely in a mode of greater control right now. And within China right now, the security services have maintained greater scrutiny over foreign journalists working there, and over the Chinese journalists who try and work alongside them in these news bureaus. I know that when I was leaving China as Bureau Chief in late 2016, a lot of Chinese journalists were being interviewed or interrogated by security officers, just asked about the activities of their western colleagues for example. And we’ve seen other detentions, various detentions of some of the Chinese journalists who work there for western organizations.
Geeta Anand: How does this affect the stories that the foreign media is telling about China? How does such a severe restriction on the number of people there affect the stories they cover?
Edward Wong: I would say, I mean, there’s different ways in which it influences coverage, I think. I think, one, it obviously makes journalists more skeptical about motivations of the Chinese government or Chinese officials. I think it makes them wonder whether the government’s trying to hide things. Why would they be expelling journalists in mass numbers? Why are they limiting access to certain parts of the country? So, it influences the mindset I think of the journalists and of how they perceive what the government might be doing across its areas of policy.
Then, obviously without having journalists on the ground in China, you get a much more limited perception of what’s going on, and the stories start becoming more limited in range. You encounter less people in your ordinary lives who might bring up details of life there in China. You focus a lot more on what Chinese media, different kinds of media are writing about China, and also what people are saying on social media because they’re outside the country looking in through these electronic prisms rather than being there on the ground.
So, there’s a self-selection of stories in the topics of interest and of the way you’re approaching these topics through that. Because it’s very focused on the internet and on watching social media and other types of media. There’s just less serendipity in running across stories and in sort of understanding the finer details of daily life there.
Geeta Anand: What’s an example of a story that you did when restrictions were looser that you can’t imagine someone coming up with now?
Edward Wong: I would say that for example one of my last trips, long trips in China was in late 2016, in the fall 2016, when I did spend two weeks driving across western Sichuan in an area that’s very heavily Tibetan, that the Tibetans call the "calm region.” And I found it fairly easy to just spend time in towns and talk to people and check into hotels, and we just drove to different places. And it gave us a sense of life out there. And we did various different types of stories from out there, including some stories just about what life was like in these towns and in the villages and among nomads, things like that.
I think today a reporter undertaking a journey like that would run into lots of difficulties from security officers out there. And in fact, a colleague of mine, Steve Myers who’s now the bureau chief there in China and has been expelled, he tried a trip to a Tibetan area a few years after I did and he ran into difficulties and had to return to Beijing. So he ran to difficulties from the presence of security officers.
Geeta Anand: You and I and even Bak have been talking about just how important it is for reporters covering a country to have a base of knowledge about the country, to be writing from a knowledgeable and nuanced point of view. And I was just wondering during your years covering China, what your experience was with the knowledge base of other foreign correspondents covering China? How well do they know the country and the culture?
Edward Wong: Right. I would say it ranges though there I have perceived a shift in this. I think that in an earlier period, say some years before 2008 when I arrived there, there was a large number of correspondents who had not a lot of background in China before they arrived. They might have been sort of the classic model foreign correspondent where you did postings around the world for several years at a time, and then the editors sent you to different countries. And there was a mindset I think among sort of an old-school way of doing foreign correspondents, where like, "Oh, if you don’t really have ties to the country, then you’re coming at it with a more objective lens or that you’re a sort of fresh look at the country.”
I think that attitude has changed now. I would say it’s definitely changed. And during my time there, from ’08 to the end of ’16, I saw a lot more correspondents coming in who had a deep knowledge base about China. There were already obviously some who had been there even for decades who spoke amazing Chinese, foreigners who weren’t Chinese or weren’t necessarily ethnic Chinese but spoke amazing Chinese and understood the political system, the social system, the economic system very well. My colleague, Chris Buckley for example, is one of those who, he studied for many years in China before he became a journalist.
So, we saw more people who had studied in China and studied the language and studied the culture and the history wanting to become journalists. I think more news organizations were willing to hire this type of person and they also understood the importance I think of language ability. And they were more willing to hire this type of person, even on the ground in China rather than having them spend time for years like in New York or learning the ropes in a New York newsroom before sending them out to China or to India or to France or wherever. So, I think we’ve seen more news organizations hiring this type and I think it’s a good change.
Geeta Anand: What’s led to that change?
Edward Wong: I think there’s several things. I think editors just have an idea that this type of person brings greater nuance to coverage. I think part of that-
Geeta Anand: Because I have one thought on that. This is my thought, having been in India for 10 years, and sometimes accused by my editors of not having a fresh eye, that I knew too much about India. And I think that the internet has changed it too, like the idea, before people only in the U.S. were reading these stories and you didn’t get pushback on stories that were not very sophisticated or just didn’t reflect the reality on the ground. But now, with people in China, well especially India, though reading these stories, that we would get so much pushback and such feedback on the stories. But anyway, that was just a thought.
Edward Wong: No, I agree. I think that’s completely relevant. I think social media has changed things. I think that in India … You have noticed, India especially, there’s like a very strong Twitter presence for example of a lot of Indian readers. Thought influencers and as well as people who have smaller followings like really scrutinizing stories by western reporters. And in China you also have that. The thing that makes it a bit more complicated in China is that there’s also an element of you can’t figure out, sometimes there’s government paid employees who are out there on social media criticizing reporters for their stories. And it’s part of the propaganda apparatus, which I don’t know if India also has anything like that. But in China that’s definitely part of the system. So you’re trying to discern what’s legitimate criticism or legitimate commentary and what’s not.
And I would say that one of the things that I think a lot of westerners misperceive about China is they actually overplay … I think that that propaganda apparatus is there, and that it’s an important element of how the government and the party operate. But I also think that there’s a very strong sense of nationalism among ordinary Chinese that’s not necessarily tied to propaganda and that they legitimately feel nationalism or patriotism and that they legitimately feel love of their country, of the country grew up in and that their parents and other ancestors have spent time in and that they are offended or that they feel that western coverage is too critical of China. I do think that that exists at a legitimate grassroots level and not just … It’s not just a feeling being pushed by the government for example.
Geeta Anand: I’m going to weave some of the questions that we’ve gotten from the audience into some of my questions now, though I will be asking you audience questions too at a later point, but here’s one that we got quite a few questions around and that is just are journalists, are western journalists too critical of the Chinese government, and is there something about the lens through which they’re viewing China that might make them too critical of the Chinese government? Like how do you see it?
Edward Wong: Right. I mean, that’s a good question, is one of the questions I think that arises the most in discussions like this and in conversations I have. I think that there are moments when, first of all, I think that the overall framework by which a lot of western journalists do approach China is from their own background of having grown up and been acculturated in a sort of democratic country with so-called western liberal values. And that partly it’s a self-selecting crowd. Journalists go into journalism because they believe in things like a free press and in the practice of what a free press does and in the importance of freedom of speech.
So, when they encounter an authoritarian system, there is a reflexive reaction against a system like t’hat, because in a way it’s a very foundational threat or very foundational oppositional approach to what the journalist has fashioned their career around and their belief system. So, I do think that that’s a lens that’s very difficult I think for western journalists to divorce themselves from when they’re approaching a system like China’s. There’s no larger authoritarian country than China and it has had many successes, as well as failures in its years, in its decades under the party.
I think that that’s a lens to which journalists come to China with. And I think that sometimes, you can make the argument sometimes they skew too much towards saying, "Oh, here’s an authoritarian system that’s imposing its will on people,” and the stories have embedded in their own language that this is a bad thing or it’s a negative thing.
I think one example is that when the pandemic broke out, there was some coverage of China which said, "Oh, China’s taking these very extreme measures to control the spread of the virus in Wuhan. It’s locking up apartment buildings. Some people stay put. People have to get food delivery from the government. They can only send one person out at a time to get things.” These very extreme measures that from our perspective it appeared extreme until the virus reached our shores and spread all over the U.S. and other countries. And then in those moments then there was a lot of critical coverage say of some governments in the West including the U.S. whether it’s the federal or local governments for being too lax in their approach towards control of the pandemic.
And then, I think at that moment, then there was more of a question of, "Oh, China, did manage to tamp down the virus, even though they didn’t have a vaccine,” and there are these images from the summer, last summer of large crowds of people gathering because the virus had been tamed or the spread of it. So I think then there was a questioning of whether of the earlier narratives about sort of whether China had been too extreme in controlling the virus. That’s an example I think of where there’s been a bit of self-reflection I think of how those earlier methods of control by China were covered.
Geeta Anand: How do these narratives get established through which Western journalists view countries like China, and how hard is it to change them? Have you seen the dominant narrative about China change during the time you’ve been covering it, and what events lead it to change?
Edward Wong: I mean, I do think that, as I said, the sort of cultural background journalists bring to this, as well as their own embedded, sort of their need to support and reinforce freedom of speech or freedom of press is an important factor in all this. And that’s something that I support. I personally believe in freedom of press and freedom of speech and believe these are important for society to function.
I would say that there has been a shift I would say to some degree in the perception of China and the authoritarian system that it runs under and its governance model. And I think that one of the changes is that there’s more of a questioning of … I think before there was always this idea that this might be doomed to failure, that there might be a collapse. I mean, there’s like one sort of China watcher who wrote this book, The Coming Collapse of China, which wrote it many, many years ago, like more than a decade ago and it hasn’t come true yet.
There was always this idea I think earlier that, oh, the system will collapse because it’s a house of cards, like it’s a Potemkin village, that type of idea. And I think that was heavily influenced too by what happened with the Soviet Union from between 1989 and 1992 and what happened in Eastern Europe. I think that was the only model that people had, a dominant model people had in their minds to apply to a place like China.
But then, I think from ’08 onward, both because of what’s happened in China but also because of what’s happened in the West and with American governance, things like the Iraq War, the economic, the financial collapse in 2008, perceptions of what President Trump represented, all of these things, I think there’s been a greater questioning of those early assumptions that the China model was doomed to failure and that there … Now, in fact, I think that when you look at discourse around China, there’s this idea that China is this behemoth, that it’s just leviathan that is out there and will dominate the world and that the U.S. is actually on its back foot now and trying to regain its posture, regain its ground in the world, rather than, "Oh, the China model is doomed to failure.” Like, that perception I think has been buried underneath these new perceptions of the system there.
But I’m also curious about your experience of India and covering India and sort of like what some of the narratives were, dominant narratives were there, and how, whether you perceived a shift in those narratives over time?
Geeta Anand: I remember when I went to India in 2008 and then the years leading up to it, the narrative was India is the next China, and India was poised to grow. And I got there and I found that the growth rate was slowing down. In fact, it had been nine, and then was eight, and it was seven, it was six, and it was five. And I was actually working for one of the dominant western newspapers that caught on to India’s growth slowing and the flaws in the system that were going to make it not be the next China, at least not economically.
So the Wall Street Journal started doing a series called Flawed Miracle about India and the New York Times at the time did a series called India’s Way, which was about, it may seem like it’s not happening but India has a particular way of doing things. Anyway, but that dominant narrative of India being the next China slowly took several years to prove itself wrong. But it often takes a few years after the reality for the perception to catch up with the new reality.
But it’s hard to change editors’ minds about the new reality because people have latched on to a prism through which they’re viewing a country and to a particular narrative.
Edward Wong: Right. I have to say, I think we talked about this earlier before this talk started, that I’ve been fortunate in the editors that I’ve had at the times during my time in China because many of them had come to the editing with China experience. They themselves had been China correspondents and lived many years in China and knew the language and the people very well. So they had a much more nuanced approach to China than an editor with very little experience might have had. Of course, any good editor, any skilled editor, will trust the correspondents and will get input from the correspondents on the ground. But every now and then, I know correspondents have run into editors that would impose their vision of things and then there’s a lot of back and forth then when that happens. And you’ve probably experienced that yourself.
Geeta Anand: Yeah, I’m impressed. I think that actually coverage of China is leading the way just in being more nuanced and having more journalists with experience in understanding of Chinese affairs. We’re catching up in the rest of the world because I didn’t find … Many of the foreign correspondents in India did not have experience covering India before and didn’t have knowledge of the language or history or culture.
I thought that was sad and disappointing. But I know that that’s changing and I know we’ve just discussed why that’s changing. And that’s because people are reading coverage in these countries and who know about this. So the challenge then as a foreign correspondent is to write stories that are interesting and important and relevant and resonant to a western audience, as well as an audience in Asia. Did you find that to be difficult?
Edward Wong: It was a little. Once you realized that you were trying to serve audiences around the globe, and I think that this is something that changed. Like when you and I were at the Times, it was around those years I think when we really made a big push to have a more global reach. And it does because a little bit difficult because you have to think of how much explanation you’re doing at stories, do you assume the reader, what kind of knowledge base do you assume the reader comes to the story with.
And obviously, I think that, when you’re writing for American audience, they’ll know a lot about certain things. I don’t know a lot about U.S. politics. But with China or India or New Zealand for example, there’s a lot of things that they’re very unaware of and they have a lot of stereotypes of.
For example, I think a lot of readers or Americans I have come across think China is a complete police state. Like they think everything you do, everything someone does in China is completely monitored and that you can’t go anywhere without the permission of security officers, or that if you do try and go somewhere, they’re watching, which is absolutely not the case. And even now, their foreign correspondents for example can roam around and not be watched constantly.
So, I think that you have to sort of explain these countries to a reader that comes at it with these stereotypes, but at the same time, there might be readers in China or in Taiwan or in Australia or in Greece who already have a deeper understanding of these countries and societies, and then they might find certain lines or paragraphs of writing to be completely banal.
I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer for how to juggle that.
Geeta Anand: Yeah, no, no, I don’t either. For example when, and this probably happens in China, too, but when most Westerners or foreigners arrive in India, they find it impossible to understand the local papers because the local papers have no context paragraphs and no background, and they’re just talking about the political parties in acronyms and the politicians often by their first names without even their last names. So again, there’s no need for an Indian audience to explain any context. So how do you, without seeming to be …
Edward Wong: And we had … Oh, I’m sorry. One thing I wanted to say was that some of these larger news organizations like the Times, what they tried to do is for example in 2014 or so, the Times set up a Chinese language website. Part of it was, for example, there have been editors there like so my colleagues Ching-Ching Ni and Jonathan Ansfield have tried to get stories or commentary written by Chinese directly in Chinese and publishing those on the website.
So, I think there’s certain ways in which some media organizations try and serve the needs of audiences in those countries. Of course, the Times website became blocked very quickly in China and so only a small number of readers can reach it through various means. India, I know that they had a blog, sort of like the Times had a specific blog going that was more aimed I think at people who understood more about India than your average reader it seemed like.
Geeta Anand: Yeah, for a time both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal had quite robust blogs within the countries, within India.
Edward Wong: Right.
Geeta Anand: Let me just ask you how the increasingly strained relationships between the two countries, between the U.S. and China, has affected your ability and journalists’ abilities to have relationships with Chinese sources and acquaintances, and have those suffered as a result of the politics in China and in the U.S. being what they are? And how does that impact the work of journalists and diplomats and others?
Edward Wong: I do think that … I mean I would say that there was already a chill in some of the relationships between western journalism sources starting even before the tensions between countries became much greater in the last couple years. Even when I was there in 2016, because of the tightening around journalists and also the tightening in the political discourse in the party and among say on campuses and things, we would get … there would be more reluctance among some sources who were academics or analysts or people who had insight into the operations of the party or the government to speak with us, even whether it’s off the record or on the record. It became much harder to get, sort of to have people speak on the record about the perceptions of what was going on. And I think that that’s gotten even harder or much worse now.
Then I would say that in the last few years, the growing tensions between governments and also the growing accusations of things like espionage and sort of whether Chinese and Americans were playing dual roles working for government while also working for an institution like a scientific institution or an educational one or a journalistic one, did influence the amount of contact that people have with each other, because I think that people on both sides became much more wary of thinking, oh, they might end up being perceived as a spy or are they passing information to the wrong people, will they be … especially in China, will the security agencies pull someone in and detain them and question them just for having contacts with western journalists or with diplomats. I think that became a much greater issue. And so it did send a chill through some of these relationships.
Geeta Anand: How does it affect then the types of stories you can do or the depth of those stories?
Edward Wong: I think it depends on the story. I think there are still many realms of coverage where this doesn’t impede coverage as much. I think when you’re writing about politics, that’s where you really feel it because it’s harder to get candid assessments I think from various people about what’s really going on in the systems and it’s very, very difficult to get them to speak on the record as I said. So you see less voices of people who have a nuanced understanding of these things in the newspaper on the internet you see, which of course then leads to like the unnuanced voices dominate the conversation online and there’s less of the people who really know what’s going on being involved in the conversation online.
Geeta Anand: I’m going to move to some questions from the audience. We got lots of questions beforehand and we’re getting questions now. So here’s one. You were in China for nine years during a period of gigantic changes even by Chinese standards. Can you tell us about two or three of the most significant accomplishments you witnessed?
Edward Wong: I would say that, I mean, obviously within the cities there was a big change in the lifestyles of a lot of middle class or upper middle class Chinese. The boom in the sort of east coast cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou or Beijing I think was extraordinary. When I arrived in 2008 that was very obvious, but by the time I left in 2016, 2017, it was anyone coming to China could not fail to notice that. So you saw things like the high-speed rails for example connecting cities, even though there was also a large very fatal accident involving one early on. But almost anyone coming to China would be impressed by something like that.
Edward Wong: And if you’re working in China and living in China, you also can’t help but be impressed by systems like this, because it’s making your daily life a lot easier. So I would say that this change in lifestyle and in ease of movement among people in China, among a certain class of people, I would say that just like in America or in other countries, there’s great inequality in China, so there’s a certain subset of people where their lives became much easier. And it’s not a small number. It’s a large number.
Geeta Anand: Yeah, yeah.
Edward Wong: Yeah.
Geeta Anand: Another question. How accurate and troubling is the narrative that we’ve entered a new cold war between the U.S. and China and how do we report on this?
Edward Wong: I mean that’s something we’re all feeling out. My current beat is writing about diplomacy and foreign policy. So this is something we’re feeling out now and that we’ve had a lot of discussions on within our newsroom. And my take on it is that the phrase cold war is inaccurate in terms of describing what we’re in right now with China, because I would say there’s definitely strong competition, there’s strong weariness from both sides and there’s much more confrontation hostility, and in the rhetoric, in the diplomatic rhetoric than there was say four or five years ago. But the economic systems are still deeply intertwined.
This was never the case with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. You see countries around the world wanting to work with both countries to a certain degree. It might go back and forth sometimes, especially with Europeans and China. Like sometimes they’ll be hot on China, sometimes they’ll be cold on China for example. But you do see … No one really wants to completely shun China. You don’t see the world separating into these spheres of political influence the way that you saw happening during the Cold War. #&op en/p#&close
Geeta Anand: Is the Biden Administration sending mixed messages about China?
Edward Wong: That’s something that I think that they’re trying to calibrate their approach carefully. I don’t know. We’ll see whether it succeeds or not. I don’t know if it will. But what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to say, and Biden said this during campaign. He said, "I think China is a formidable competitor. We’ll have to confront and compete with China in many areas.” But he said, "There are also these areas of cooperation like climate change, health security, and other areas where we need to cooperate with China.” That’s a different message than what President Trump was saying.
So, I think that there is a contrast between the two. And I think in the last few weeks you’ve really seen that playing out where you had a greater talk of climate change and how the two countries might work together on global climate policy. But at the same time, the Biden Administration for example and the State Department and Secretary Blinken, they’ve stuck by the determination of genocide for example against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang that the Trump Administration had reached near the end of its period.
Geeta Anand: Another question is whether China is spreading disinformation in the U.S., and is that so? And if so, in what ways and who are they trying to reach?
Edward Wong: I mean, the Chinese, to me it’s fairly obvious what the Chinese media or propaganda apparatus is. I mean it’s the China Daily, the English language newspaper, there’s CGTN, the English language network, and these are operating in the U.S. just like Radio Sputnik does for Russia for example or Russia Today. To me it’s fairly obvious that they’re trying to shape perceptions of China, trying to put on much more positive perception of the country that might be portrayed in the Western press.
To me it still lacks a certain level of sophistication. I think that there could be levels of propaganda influence that they could engage in, in their media messaging, that they haven’t quite done yet. I’ll just leave you with that. I think that there are some obvious ways in which they’re trying to influence western perceptions.
There has also been talk about whether there’s been different other things like scientific endeavors that Chinese scientists try engaging with American scientists and whether the government, the Chinese government is involved in those. There are discussions of whether they’re trying to woo local American politicians and trying to engage with state level politicians. Those aren’t that widespread yet, so I don’t think that’s happening widely. I think that it could lead to what we might call red scare, but I don’t, right now I don’t perceive it as a widespread phenomenon.
Geeta Anand: Here’s another one and that’s, what’s China’s aim in its foreign policy? Like what do the 2020s have in store for China? What’s its goal?
Edward Wong: I mean that’s a good question. That’s what everyone’s trying to figure out right now, at least in certain circles in Washington. I mean, I would say that one big aim is to … So, firmly reestablish China as a dominant, the dominant power in Asia. And I would say that that includes … And this is where it really butts up against the U.S. goals, and that means military power also. Because I think that very few U.S. American policy makers or strategists, whether you’re a democrat or a republican, want to give up the notion that the U.S. is the dominant military power in the Pacific region. I think that that comes from many factors, including what happened with Japan in World War II.
I think the U.S. is very set in trying to … generally set in trying to maintain that. And China wants to be the dominant military power in the Pacific. I don’t think there’s any doubt. I mean, I would. Some people might push back against that assertion, but I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.
And then, the other big part of that that’s related is Taiwan, and that China wants to be reunified, it wants Taiwan. It makes this argument that Taiwan’s been part of China for a long time, and there are other people that might argue history doesn’t really show that to a large degree. But they want Taiwan to be reintegrated or assimilated back into China. Most Taiwanese don’t want that and America so far has tried to rhetorically push back against any notion that China might … China’s assertions of that.
Geeta Anand: So, this leads nicely into one of the questions here which is, do you foresee a future armed conflict between the U.S. and China? And I won’t ask the second part of that question because the first part is such a shocking one.
Edward Wong: Right. I mean that’s something that … I mean, countries rarely want war and then when it happens, sometimes it’s a surprise. A lot of this question arose a few years ago in, at least in Washington circles when there was a book called The Thucydides Trap that was written or Destined for War and talked about what’s known as the Thucydides trap. It was written by Graham Allison, a long-time U.S. official and a Harvard professor about sort of saying a rising power and a status quo power and established power it’s very likely that they’ll end up in a war situation. I’m not sure that that’s the case, partly because of what I said earlier about that this isn’t the same as the Cold War, that these very large economies, the first and largest economies in the world are deeply intertwined in many ways.
And even though in the Trump Administration there was a lot of talk of decoupling these economies, and I think that even the Biden Administration, they recognize that some of that talk around supply chains and decoupling was valid or was something to explore further, in general it’s very difficult to really pull these two economies apart. There’s so many linkages. You look around what you have, your iPhone in your pocket, look around all the things you have in your house, the way you go about your life, and it’s very difficult. It would be very difficult if the economies are completely pulled apart.
So, I think that’s one thing that hedges against the idea of war. And also, there’s the other thing, which is the nuclear deterrent. And I think that was true in the Cold War and it’s still true now. Both powers are nuclear powers and there is an argument that these nuclear warheads might act as a deterrent.
Geeta Anand: Here’s a question about identity. Did your ethnic Chinese and national American identities factor into your reporting in China and alter in any way your self-identity? And if so, how?
Edward Wong: I mean, that’s a very complex question. Let me answer that sort of somewhat on an operational level, which is that I found that because I was Chinese and could speak to a certain degree two different types of Chinese language, Mandarin and Cantonese, then I could move around to different parts of China very easily, whereas I think someone who didn’t have that background, that ethnic background would find it harder, just because people wouldn’t look at me twice when I would enter a village. They would just, if you just enter, start talking to people very casually, it wouldn’t be … sort of who I was would not be as much of an issue if I were non-Chinese for example.
So, I think that made things a little bit easier in terms of getting access to certain places. I could probably slip through. There were many times I remember when I could drive past police checkpoints and just be sitting up in the car without having to sort of hunker down in the back and sort of hide myself. I found that that gave me greater access to places and to people, and that people’s perception of me, oftentimes they would just think I was from another part of China where I had a strong Cantonese accent, like I was from southern China because I always spoke with a strong Cantonese accent since I grew up speaking Cantonese with my parents, and they would think that, "Oh, he’s just someone from southern China.” They wouldn’t think, "Oh, he’s some foreigner, and let’s figure out who he is and what he’s doing here.”
Geeta Anand: The question about source protection Edward, like what measures did you use to protect sources in China, especially those that were being critical of the government? Did do you take different precautions than you would as a journalist here in the US?
Edward Wong: Yeah. It would be very on a case-by-case basis and on sort of whether what kind of risk the source wanted to run and whether we perceived that they knew what the risks were. Sometimes we ran into sources who were kind of naive about the fact that they were contacting western journalists and that they were naive about what the consequences could be for them. So, we would try and inform them and take certain measures like set up discrete meetings in areas where it’d be hard for people to watch or to know that we were meeting. I would try not to use the social media app WeChat to contact these types of sources because WeChat is easily monitored by security agencies. So there would be other ways in which we would have to try and contact sources to set up meetings, and then we would try and make every effort to meet face-to-face for example.
Then there were other cases where sources. I did run across some sources in my time there that fully knew what the risks were and they didn’t really care. They sort of might have been imprisoned before. They felt that maybe the cause that they were representing was stronger than whatever might befall them and so they wanted to meet out in the open, they wanted to approach me very openly. And if I felt that they fully perceived the risks, then I would give them the benefit of doubt because I didn’t want to be sort of the Westerner who came in and tried to teach them about what the risks in China were. I felt that there were certain people who knew better than me what the risks were.
Geeta Anand: Did you feel like your phone calls were monitored by someone all the time? I mean, is that the case?
Edward Wong: No. I never felt that they were monitored all the time because there were many times when I would talk to people or have meetings with people and that some of this was done over the phone, and if they were monitored, then I’m sure someone would’ve stepped in and sort of stopped that meeting from happening or like if it was being set up over a phone call or something like that. Or the foreign ministry would have called me and said, "Oh, we know you’re working on a story on this so we want to warn you about that.” That never happened. So, I don’t think they’re monitoring it all the time.
I mean, I think there’s a misperception about sort of the power of governments and how they monitor people. I think they can definitely scoop up tons of data, but whether someone’s like going and listening to all the recordings or monitoring something real time constantly 24 hours is a misperception I think.
Geeta Anand: It’s so interesting because I was doing a tough story on corruption in India and trying to figure out if I should worry about my safety. So, I had talked to a top police source in Mumbai asking, "Do you think my phone calls are being monitored, do I need to worry, do I need to worry about my safety?” And he said, "Oh yeah, I’m sure your … ” And I was doing it on sort of Robert Vadra who is like the son of the leading congress party member at the time congress was in power in India.
Anyway, the police officers said they were definitely listening to my calls and gathering data, but they were gathering so much data from so many people that there was no way they would be able to put it together and interpret it. So, as long as I wasn’t viewed as a tool for anyone, I was safe. Anyway, that was just interesting and played into sort of the stereotype of India of being quite disorganized. They would be gathering it but figuring out what it meant would take some time.
Edward Wong: Right. And I think that’s true both in China and the U.S., too, that they can scoop up the data. There’s technology they have to scoop up all this data, but they have to sift through it. If you’re someone who comes on their radar for a very specific reason, like they know you’re working on a story about the party leader for example in an investigative story, they might start scrutinizing you. But if you don’t come on the radar for that, then they’re not going to be sifting through all the data looking for what you’re talking about.
Geeta Anand: Just one more question about sort of journalism in China. Like what kind of access do reporters have to the situation in western China?
Edward Wong: I mean there’s different parts. Western China is large. I don’t know if the reader is asking about Xinjiang in particular which is the part of western China that-
Geeta Anand: They don’t mention it but my guess is yes.
Edward Wong: Right. So, Xinjiang is where the Uyghur population, there’s a large population of Uyghurs and as well as Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities, many of them Muslims. And this is where they have been large internment camps and other forms of repression. It’s been very difficult for journalists to get access to those towns. I mean, we obviously have seen great reporting from that area and journalists have gotten in, and a lot of journalists have done some of the reporting from going outside China and talking to Uyghurs or Kazakhs who have left China and interviewed them outside of the country and piece together things. And they’ve also used technology like satellite imagery to look at the destruction of mosques or internment camps being built. So, I think that they’ve done this in a very peaceful manner and put together strong stories.
But there have been different times in my experience of China. I started going there in the ’90s. And in the ’90s I would just show up in Xinjiang in a town and no one would think twice about me, and I would … There would be tons of foreigners staying in hotels and just going around. And then it’s become much harder since then and very, very hard for journalists. If you’re traveling with a journalism visa, then as soon as you land in town in Xinjiang and you get on the radar of the police, the police will start I think trying to track you.
Geeta Anand: Sort of a last question, and this sort of is a question that is not from the audience, but it’s from the Journalism School and from me, and that is: When you were here at Berkeley Journalism, you took a course on reporting in China and you traveled to Hong Kong to do reporting. Can you just talk a little about sort of how your training and the classes you took influenced the journalist that you became and sort of the area of coverage you ended up specializing in?
Edward Wong: That’s a good question. I mean, this goes back to your question about sort of the foundational expertise that people bring in. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but at least from an earlier age I was trying to build a base of knowledge about China, and part of that, an important part of that was taking this course when I was at Berkeley Journalism School with a couple very smart professors and teachers who we spent an entire semester reading about the nuances of the history between China and Hong Kong. This is in 1997 right before the handover between the Chinese government and the British government on Hong Kong.
We spent a lot of time reading about the history and about different issues involved in this transition of governance and about what it meant for each country, especially what it meant for Beijing, and what it meant for people in Hong Kong too.
And I think that having the training to spend a lot of time delving into a very specific historical issue and then going there on the ground to report and do lots of interviews and writing, and at that time I was writing a lot of freelance stories from publications like the LA Times and the San Francisco Chronicle based on this class and my trip there, that greatly helped both at the moment understanding the historical moment but also in the long run understanding what China’s goals and its different policy moves, what its leaders want, what people on the ground, especially people in Hong Kong wanted. A lot of this fed into a much greater and more nuanced understanding of China later. Just taking a single class at Berkeley was important for that.
Geeta Anand: Edward, thank you so much. It’s been just such a pleasure being able to talk to you about China and your experience as a foreign correspondent and what you think of our evolving U.S.-China relationship. I’m going to invite back Bak Chan to say a few words and close this event. So, welcome back Bak and I’ll let you address the audience.
Bak Chan: Okay. Nice to be back. Thank you so much. Thank you so much to Ed and Geeta for this informative and insightful dialogue. I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did. As I mentioned earlier, Berkeley Journalism recognized that there may be a gap in terms of breadth and quality in U.S. journalism coverage of China. They are resolved t’o create a China-centric program at Berkeley Journalism. This program will offer student in-depth training on China so they will learn to cover the country with nuance, sensitivity, understanding and accuracy in their future careers.
There are three elements to this program. Number one: China class, just a full semester class on China will be offered, including a field trip to China, many documentaries and reports will be published for public consumption upon class completion. Number two: student scholarships. Recipients are required to take classes in Chinese culture, history, and contemporary socioeconomic environments to enhance their skill set. And number three: national journalism on China contest. Prizes will be provided for an annual contest open to all journalism students in the U.S. on a China-themed topic.
These are exciting plans indeed. We will share more specifics with you in a couple of weeks. And any support from you as Cal alumni or friends to enhance this exchange and relationship between the two largest economies in the world will be greatly appreciated. Until then, and on behalf of the CAA Chinese Chapter and the Berkeley Journalism, thank you very much for your participation. And by the way, if you missed part of the program, you could always catch a recording on our website or on YouTube. Please feel free to share that with your friends as well. Have a great evening. Stay safe. Bye-bye.
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