Video: Six NY Times Correspondents Share Half-Century of China Experience

Watch the complete program above.

NEW YORK — Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations marked the launch of its new website ChinaFile Tuesday night by bringing together a panel of former and current New York Times correspondents whose collective China experience spans the course of half a century.

Moderated by Asia Society's Orville Schell, the panel featured Seymour Topping (1946-1950), Fox Butterfield (1979-1981), Nicholas Kristof (1988-1993), Elisabeth Rosenthal (1997-2003), Joseph Kahn (2003-2007) and Edward Wong (2008-present) — who agreed that China has changed more than they could ever have imagined in some ways, and stayed the same in others. But, they all concluded, where China is utimately headed is impossible to predict.

Rosenthal said during her time in China she was shocked by “how quickly Tiananmen faded as economic opportunities and choices opened up.” She also noticed, toward the end of her Beijing stint, more willingness on the part of average Chinese people to talk to the foreign press, as well as a “great desire for more openness and more change.”

But, the panelists all noted, state controls on the media and information remain repressive even in the face of rapid economic growth and technological advance. “What still interests me is whether that economic freedom translates into political freedom,” said Rosenthal, adding she is "a little disappointed" she hasn't seen a greater push for change and press freedoms.  Wong agreed that increased Chinese use of the internet and social media “doesn’t show that there’s a revolution brewing,” and that the state, in contrast, may use the web to "strengthen its rule."

“One thing, if I’m looking at the Chinese Communist party, that strikes me is there hasn’t been much change,” said Topping, who first met Communist leaders in Yan’an before the CCP took control of China. “My hope is that there will be some change in the leadership now with Xi Jinping coming to power, but still they are the princelings, they are the descendants of the people who were in Yan’an. They were the people who fought the civil war, they are the people that experienced Maoism.”

When it came time for the panel to predict whether China's political system would experience changes similar to the country's economy, Kahn said: “If we predict it, it will be wrong for sure." According to Wong, since China is “probably the most accomplished authoritarian system in the world," it is going to be compared to the United States, the world's most prominent democracy. “America is one experiment and China is the other one," he said, "and we’re seeing which system might end up doing the better job."

And while we may not know the answer to that question in our lifetimes, Kristof said there is no escaping the fact that "China is becoming the most important place in the world in this century."

About the Author

Profile picture for user Liz Flora
Liz Flora is a contributor to Asia Blog. She has a master's degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University.