New Yorker Writers: How Coverage of China Has Evolved


On December 17, Orville Schell, Jiayang Fan, Peter Hessler, Zha Jianying, and Evan Osnos will appear in conversation with David Remnick about covering China for The New Yorker. (leniers/Flickr)

When the United States re-established ties with China in the 1970s, the American media found itself tasked with covering a country emerging from a long period of isolation. One of these publications was The New Yorker. Freed from the fast-paced demands of a daily newspaper, the magazine instead contributed a rich portrait of the people and places that characterized the swiftly changing Asian country. On Thursday, five of the writers who have covered China for The New YorkerOrville Schell, Jiayang Fan, Evan Osnos, Peter Hessler, and Zha Jianying — discussed these changes at Asia Society in New York with David Remnick, the magazine's longtime editor. 

Prior to the event, we asked the five writers to describe what their approach to covering China would be, were they to begin their stints in the country anew. This is the first installment of a two part interview. Click here to read part two.

Orville Schell
Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society

When I began covering China from China in 1975, Mao Zedong was still alive, his revolution was still in full flood, and a foreigner, especially a writer (even if he or she spoke Chinese), was utterly unabsorbable. It was as if we were on the other side of a thick glass partition through which we could superficially see, but not actually physically pass. Moreover, ordinary Chinese people were quite terrified of speaking with a foreigner in any kind of officially unauthorized interaction. One was almost at the complete mercy of one’s handlers. If one did manage to slip their oversight to go out alone, the consequences were often extreme. The result was that “reporting” was not only a very difficult but also a very unsatisfying experience.

Now, after many years of reform and opening up, while there are still substantial constraints, a foreign correspondent’s ability to travel and talk freely (to those who are willing to do so) has transformed the reporting experience for foreign correspondents, writers, and academics.

As to the question of bias: My experience is that most reporters and writers strive mightily to remain even-handed in their coverage. However, government controls, surveillance, and harassment still often create a negative environment that frequently makes reporting a more antagonistic experience than it needs to be.

I think our ability to actually move about within Chinese society has increased.

 

Jiayang Fan
New Yorker editorial staff

Not long after arriving in the U.S. from Chongqing, where I’d spent the first eight years of my life, I remember finding a thick stash of New York Times clippings tucked into an old photo album. Opening them, I saw that they all featured the same iconic views of soldiers, tanks, and the portrait of Mao’s impassable face hanging in Beijing’s city square. My father, who had arrived in the U.S. in 1986, seemed to have hoarded Nicholas Kristof’s reporting on the Tiananmen Massacre like collectible coins. At the age of eight, this struck me as odd: Why would a Chinese person need to read non-Chinese people on China? As it so happens, it was also my introduction to foreign correspondence.

In the subsequent years, I found myself obsessively searching out Western perspectives on China. If the goal, at first, was to glibly glean in English what I already knew in Chinese, the effect was an appreciation of my own ignorance about the place I was born. Still, 20 years ago, there was still occasionally the tendency to exoticize and de-contextualize. China seemed to exist, stultifyingly, in the realm of the other. It wasn’t until I read Peter Hessler’s River Town in college that I felt, with a twinge of envy and disappointment, that a foreigner can get China the way I did, and that my being Chinese or even growing up there did not grant me exclusivity in understanding its internal logic and implicit social axioms. I’m lucky enough to have spent the past decade reading the dispatches of Evan [Osnos], Peter [Hessler] and [Zha] Jianying, who all manage to tell stories at once wide and deep, about Chinese lives that in their difference from Western ones, remain both compelling and relevant.

Perhaps, due to America’s greater engagement with China in the past decade, China stories seem to have more texture. Still, as I find in my own writing, it’s all too easy to generalize and to substitute sensational fear-mongering for insight. As I’m learning with every story, to write well on China is to explain the interconnected facets of the country simply, yet without compromising on its complexity, to deliver a narrative anchored by a foreigner’s objectivity but told with a native’s sense of intimacy.
 

Evan Osnos
New Yorker staff writer, author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

The cartoon, of course, is that foreign reporters drop in to Beijing for a few years, take some dissidents to dinner, quote a cab driver or two, and then head off to the next assignment. Up close, that image doesn't hold up. Based on my experience in a few countries, the reporters who choose to move to China today are there because of long-term commitment. They're pretty deeply committed to studying people's motivations and language and history.

In the last decade, reporters have gained much greater access to the lives of ordinary people, but we have not done enough of the risky work that Chinese reporters are legally prevented from doing: writing about the ways that the powerful abuse the system at the expense of ordinary people.

 

Peter Hessler
New Yorker staff writer, author of River Town, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving

The language skills and general China knowledge of foreign reporters have improved greatly. There are many more correspondents who are China specialists to some degree. And I think that people stay longer. When I first arrived in Beijing in 1999, people seemed to shuffle through in two or three-year stints. At the same time, Chinese people have become much more open and accessible. The end result is that reporters can go much deeper than in the past.

I also think that the books by journalists on China are vastly better than they were 20 years ago. The shelf was pretty thin in those days, and I remember that it was hard to find books that connected with what I was experiencing in the interior of the country. But now you have an impressive range of subjects and approaches. There are book’s like Evan’s Age of Ambition that give a good overview of the main issues and use individual stories to illustrate what’s happening, and there are other books that focus on some specific place or topic. You can find books about dissidents, or factory workers, or entrepreneurs; and there are even books that are centered in some little-known part of the country, like Michael Meyer’s In Manchuria. In 1990s, China books felt placeless to me. It was so much harder for journalists to get out of Beijing and Shanghai, and it was also harder to justify a tight focus to editors.

But while I feel like there has been great development in that regard, I don’t think we’ve seen an equivalent leap in the quality of the stories in the popular press. China of this era has been very hard to fit into a traditional newspaper or news magazine format. The politics lacks the vibrancy of other aspects of society, and the “news” events often haven’t mattered much, in the long run. It’s more useful to follow individuals or small communities over time, which is very hard to do for a newspaper. First, it takes a lot of time, and second, that kind of project sits uneasily beneath traditional headlines and traditional approaches to structure and story type. I saw this at close range when my wife [the writer Leslie Chang] researched what eventually became Factory Girls, while she was at the Wall Street Journal. The paper really supported that project; They gave her a lot of time to research, and they ran some long features about it. But a lot of the really strong stuff in the book never made it into the paper. And I think that some of the editors never really got it. The readers did — you could see that from the comments. But editors become so accustomed and so good at processing news, and at working fast, that they often have trouble stepping back and recognizing another approach.

There are also issues of writing. Leslie was writing stories of two or three thousand words, and she would include a set piece, and an editor would say, “What is this thing? Get rid of it.” If you can’t use set pieces in a story of such length, it’s going to be a mess, structurally. The editors always wanted a nut graf, some kind of really bald summary, right up at the top, instead of having an opening that breathes a little and escorts the reader into this fascinating and different world. There are a lot of basic, useful writing tools that make the traditional press uneasy. One example is the first-person voice. If you can’t use the first person, then your options for humor are much reduced. You also can’t capture the way that subjects are responding to your identity as a foreign journalist, which may be important. And you can’t establish the sources and limits of your knowledge. You can’t let readers know exactly how you learned something, or what you couldn’t quite figure out.

I came to journalism very late. When I wrote River Town, I had done some freelancing, but not much, and mostly I had written travel features. I was almost 30 when I applied for journalism jobs for the first time (and of course at that point, with no internships or experience, it was too late — nobody even offered a job interview). When I started working in the field, I was impressed by the conservatism. Sure, it’s “liberal” in terms of the politics of most practitioners, but the larger traditions, work patterns, and thinking are very conservative. It’s not surprising. Journalism is built on speed and efficiency, so you need set patterns, set story forms, and set character types. Routine is fundamental, and that tends to affect creativity and patterns of thought over time.

Also, a news organization typically wants to have writers with similar backgrounds and skills, so that they can be moved efficiently between different positions, different bureaus, different beats. At some level it’s easier if everybody thinks the same way and shares the same basic skills. The need for efficiency also means that labor is divided whenever possible. When Leslie started researching in Dongguan, her initial idea was to have different people in the WSJ bureau do different stories about that place. I said, “Are you crazy? This is not a team sport. If you want some coherence and depth, you need to do this project yourself.” It’s better to have one writer spend two years on a subject than five writers who each spends three months. It’s better for the final vision of that subject, but it’s probably not better for the day-to-day needs of the newspaper. They demand efficiency for a reason.

Of course, these are very specific, writer-focused issues, and the larger economic challenge to journalism has been so massive that it’s not surprising that something like loosening up the structures of stories does not take precedent. It’s a tough time for journalism. But I do think that some of these traditions have hampered the coverage in China. It says a lot that the China books by journalists are often much more impressive and more useful than their stories.

 

Zha Jianying
Author of Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China and China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture

Well, the short answer is: [Foreign coverage] is pretty good in general, but the best is in The New Yorker!

Before I go on, I think a note of background is in order because I’m not a regular reader of foreign reporting on China. I was born and grew up in Beijing and I still spend half of my time there, dividing my year between China and the U.S. In tracking news, my habit has been reading more Chinese coverage while in China, and more English coverage while in America. Hence you might say that, in any given year, I have missed out at least half of the “foreign reporting” on China. And my partial impressions are formed from a select numbers of papers and magazines, mainly The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Financial Times, and The Economist. I sample others like The Wall Street Journal and so on. Then there is the Internet and television.

Based on my spotty reading, I feel that foreign reporting on China has maintained a fairly high level of professionalism. Despite intense commercial pressures, newspapers and magazines operate in a pretty mature Western journalistic system. While each news organization has its own editorial vision and position on China (their staple topics and themes targeting their respective home audience), there is a shared respect for fact-finding and checking and an effort to be as objective and balanced as they can. The reporting usually reflects these shared standards while sticking to their different positions and interests. such as NYT’s concern with inequality, The Economist’s interest in economic liberalization, the WSJ’s focus on business and trade, and everybody on geopolitics, human rights, and Chinese consumption. Perhaps only The New Yorker stands slightly apart with a more languid, literary approach: I can’t think of another publication that is as fond of long character studies and idiosyncratic takes on the China story.

An interesting phenomenon is how Western reporting can also create unintended repercussions in China. Of course, the majority of Chinese have no direct access to foreign reporting, but those who do have very different reactions, and their reactions can spread further through local media. In general, Chinese people with strong nationalist sentiments tend to view Western coverage of China as biased for over-emphasizing China’s problems rather than its progress, and for having a narrow focus on a few high-profile dissidents and certain pet topics. Most well-educated Chinese liberals, on the other hand, have a favorable view: They value foreign reporting as an interesting alternative perspective on China and the world, or a sorely needed source for hidden information, such as human rights abuse and high-level official corruption, that remain censored and opaque in the mainstream Chinese media. In fact, the division of Chinese opinions on foreign media reflects a lack of consensus among the Chinese public about China itself. So, in this interconnected global age, foreign reporting of China not only informs their home audience but affects debates and changes in China as well.

In the U.S., I know many Americans whose opinion of current China is shaped by The New York Times or whatever local paper and TV station they read and watch. So it is interesting that, after their first visit of China, many would tell me how amazed they were by what they saw. More often than not, they seem to have expected a less affluent and more restricted country. Is this merely because the first time visitor is unable to see the deeper, darker undercurrents beyond the gleaming surface of the big coastal cities? Or does it indicate a real gap between the image and perception of China portrayed in the Western media and the physical reality of a more complicated people and society?

On the negative side, I have heard some people in Beijing say, half-jokingly: “It’s long over when it’s printed in The New York Times.” They suggest that some of the Times reporting on China suffers a time lag, and foreign journalists can’t quite keep up with the latest story that often makes its first appearance on the Chinese Internet. This is disparaging. Reporting is not just about speed. The Times has carried some of the best in-depth reporting on China I have read over the years. And who can truly keep up with the Chinese Internet? Its spin of the news and fake news — reports, commentary, satire, parody — operates at warp speed. They are produced faster than fast-food; They are instant food that goes from hot to cold just as quickly. China has been the fastest-changing place on the planet in the past three to four decades. Foreign reporting on China could improve, certainly — it would be nice to have more context, more depth, more understanding, more insight, more suppleness, and more subtlety. But considering the mind-boggling speed and complexity of what’s been happening in China, I think foreign reporting has done a pretty decent job overall.


See the complete program at Asia Society in the video below.


(L to R) Peter Hessler, Jiayang Fan, David Remnick, Zha Jianying, Evan Osnos, and Orville Schell discuss reporting on China at Asia Society in New York on December 17. (1 hr., 27 min.)


About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Senior Content Manager at Asia Society. Previously, he worked as an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he helped launch and then oversee the China Channel.