Q&A: The Washington Post's Gerry Shih on Covering China
In March, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it would expel American journalists working for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal from the country, giving them just 10 days to pack their belongings and exit the country. The decision, made in retaliation for the U.S. government's earlier decision to restrict the number of Chinese journalists in the United States, marked a significant milestone in the deteriorating relationship between the two countries.
One of the American journalists forced to leave China was The Post's Gerry Shih. Since joining the newspaper as a China correspondent in 2018, Shih's reporting has stood out for its searing coverage of the lives of ordinary people in the country. He has written about the plight of the Hui, a Muslim minority group facing extreme persecution; Marxist students at Beijing's most prestigious university suddenly disappearing; the aftermath of a major chemical explosion near a village in rural Jiangsu Province; and many other stories. Shih's reporting reveals a country where individuals and groups deviating from officially-sanctioned norms of behavior are no longer as tolerated. The China unveiled in his stories is one that, in many ways, is significantly less free than it was even a decade ago.
Last week, Asia Society announced that Shih was awarded the 2020 Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia. The award is his second in a row: In 2019, Shih was one of a team of Associated Press reporters honored for their reporting on China. You can read a selection of Shih's reporting for The Washington Post here.
He spoke with Asia Blog by phone from Seoul, South Korea, where he is now based.
One theme I’ve noticed in your writing is that, in the Xi Jinping era, pluralism in China has increasingly come under threat.
I definitely think that space for non-ideologically-conformist speech has shrunk, whether it’s in the academic sphere, among intellectuals and writers, or among the legal profession. It’s even shrunk for companies, domestic and foreign, who want to do business in China. It’s shrunk for religion.
There are many people who would say that since the rise of [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, the country, in many ways, has gone backward. I think this point often gets lost in the heated talk about U.S.-China relations today. The Chinese side will say that the U.S. can’t stand its form of government, that Washington desires regime change, or that there’s something fundamental about the Chinese system that’s incompatible with Western liberal democracy. They'll say that it’s inevitable that there will be an ideological, strategic, and military showdown.
Whereas, if you were to talk to many Chinese people, you’d get the sense that there’s not necessarily an existential clash — it’s just a directional change. Had things continued along the trajectory China was on 15 years ago, maybe things wouldn’t have changed as fast as some people in the West would have liked. But I don’t think we would be where we are today — because, for so many, it’s directional.
What do most people think about the direction the country is going in? Would you say that this backward drift has sparked grievances among people who are old enough to remember the way things had been?
I think that there’s a degree of unease that’s most apparent among intellectuals and minorities. But I think it’s true that Xi engenders tremendous support by pulling those levers of nationalism. When he talks about poverty alleviation — and hits those populist notes — it really resonates with people. Even in the Hui areas, I talked to a guy who runs a noodle shop who fondly remembers Xi visiting his county. He was worried about the general political atmosphere but he acknowledged that the central government has invested a lot in the area. So I think that, for the most part, there just isn't a lot of popular discontent with Xi's rule.
There’s an argument that Western journalists covering China pay too much attention to dissidents and intellectuals who, while compelling subjects, represent a small fraction of the Chinese population as a whole. Are these people who are more outspoken worth the attention that the media pays to them?
I think it’s a valid criticism, certainly, that these people who represent a minuscule proportion of society as a whole receive so much attention. The vast majority of people have more or less rallied around the government, particularly during times like this when China has been under a lot of international scrutiny while grappling with a humanitarian disaster. I've never bought the line that the coronavirus would weaken the government’s grip. In fact, the country has rallied around its government, as much as you’d see in any other kind of disaster.
I think journalists seek points of tension that might reveal greater truths about society. We tend to cover the negative. But I think we do this with the aim of illuminating the greater structural problems and contradictions in society. I don’t think we amplify dissident voices for the sake of it.
In the course of your reporting on China, are people as willing today to open up to you as they were a few years ago?
I wasn’t in China for 10-15 years, like some of my colleagues, so I don’t have the same timeframe to compare it with. But even in my experience, it has gotten more difficult in the last five years for ordinary people to talk and for scholars to be willing to be quoted. From what I’ve been told, a lot of this has changed since 2008. I wasn’t in China working as a professional reporter then, but the controversy over the coverage of the Olympics and the riots in Tibet changed Chinese popular opinion about Western media.
Of course, in the last couple of years, propaganda has ramped up. Even just a couple of weeks ago, when my colleagues went to the streets of Beijing to ask parents how they were dealing with online education for their kids, my colleagues were hounded out of the neighborhood. A local resident accused them of wanting to smear China. And you encounter these situations often.
Society has closed in many ways and has become hostile to the Western media to the point where the only people willing — or desperate enough — to talk to you are ones with grievances. And that, of course, can slant your coverage somewhat.
For one of the stories I wrote last year, I went to a town in Jiangsu Province that had suffered a big chemical explosion. I talked to people who were furious that their homes were shattered, that their neighbors were dead from the explosion. So many of them wanted to get their stories off their chest. Suddenly, a woman in the crowd asked me where I worked. I said The Washington Post. She said, "Oh, that’s American. That’s foreign media. Why are you here? You’re just going to make us look bad. You're going to smear China." Everyone paused.
And then someone else in the group, in this huddle of villagers, said, “If this guy doesn’t write about it, do you think the Jiangsu Daily or the Nanjing Daily will tell this story truthfully? This is the only guy who will tell our stories the way they ought to be told so that our leaders will see them."
Then the others said, “yes, this is true,” and we carried on with the interview.
But it’s something I’ve encountered often: The default response to reporters is hostile. It’s a suspicion of foreign media. It's no longer curiosity.
Back in March, the Chinese government announced it would expel you and other foreign journalists from China in apparent retaliation for the U.S. limiting Chinese reporters. In terms of telling stories about China, what's lost when you and other reporters are unable to be physically present in the country?
Just having eyes on the ground is useful. Being able to go into universities and talk to academics, face to face, is useful. There’s so much you pick up simply by absorbing the climate.
I really regret that the two governments have chosen to make journalist visas a political tool. I think it's misguided.
Last quarter, the Chinese economy contracted for the first time since 1976. For years, conventional wisdom has been that the Communist Party's legitimacy is primarily derived from providing consistent economic growth and improved living standards. Do you think the coronavirus-related economic downturn could threaten this?
The Xi government has played up ethnonationalism as one of the defining pillars of its rule. A re-emphasis on traditional Chinese values or Chinese identity, which has run up against the different ethnic identifies in the country's far West, for example, is certainly one of the ways the Party has tried to build legitimacy and promote national unity at a time when the economy isn’t doing great.
Then, of course, there’s an age-old refrain that China is besieged on all sides by external threats, and that they have to stand together and be on guard. We’ve seen it used in the past, and I’m sure we will again in the future.