The China Narrative: A Six-Decade Perspective

New York Times journalists reflect on country in 'constant flux'

NEW YORK, February 5, 2013 — Six current and former New York Times China correspondents formed a panel at Asia Society to discuss the evolution of reporting on China from the time of the civil war to today. Seymour Topping, Fox Butterfield, Nicholas Kristof, Elisabeth Rosenthal, Joseph Kahn and Edward Wong relayed their personal experiences reporting on China in a conversation moderated by Arthur Ross Director of Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, Orville Schell. The panel took place in honor of the launch of ChinaFile, Asia Society's new online magazine on China.

Described as the "inspiration ... behind ChinaFile," Schell kicked off the panel by asking each journalist to talk about when and where he or she entered "the China narrative." Topping, the first journalist of the group to have traveled to China, was also the first to speak, noting that he travelled to Beijing in 1946 as a writer for the International News Service. Throughout the next 30 years, he covered the civil war and the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Butterfield, the second to speak, arrived in 1979 and partook in setting up the first New York Times bureau in China. He called himself "lucky in timing," for China was "opening up to itself;" the Chinese had started talking to each other. He referenced America's "pent-up China fervor." With the country having been closed for 30 years, the differences between Chinese and American ways of life were so vastly different from one another that Butterfield felt like "a kid in a candy store." In China, "stories hung on trees," he exclaimed.

Kristof addressed the audience after Butterfield, recounting his first experience in the apartment allotted to New York Times journalists stationed in Beijing, in which he, Butterfield, and Rosenthal all stayed. Settling there in 1988, Kristof and his wife mistook a doorbell buzzer in their wall for a government bug, indicating that stories in China are always multilayered and require deep investigation. And though there is no substitute for being stationed in the country, he assured, there have been instances in which the most accurate reporting on China takes place beyond the country's borders — such as the reporting of the Great Famine, for example, the most accurate of which was informed by Chinese refugees.

Rosenthal's time in China coincided with the country's economic reform. From 1997 to 2003, she witnessed fast-paced Internet and economic growth, and an accompanying decrease in fear of the government. As the economy opened up, "contact became much less structured" and more and more calls from people willing to tell their stories came into the bureau from government-monitored telephone lines. At the beginning of Rosenthal's time in China, people whose stories she reported were afraid to give their real names. By the end of her time there, the opposite was true.

Khan, who spoke after Rosenthal, arrived in China in 2003, a transformative time in the country, during which new rhetoric about the media and rule of law surfaced. The New York Times had been unblocked in 2001, and peasant uprisings and factory strikes reached a peak. Five years later, however, Khan left a country confident it could have both its old political system and American-style economic prosperity by adopting a system of state capitalism.

A journalist who continues his reporting on China from Beijing, Wong spoke last. He saw China weather the global financial crisis of 2008 and claimed the ordeal exposed the country's weakness: its industries' dependence on massive government investments, which could prove dangerous should the government's capacity to invest be filled. Due to political kinship ties, these investments were made by people close to the government to be put toward political enterprises.

When asked what keeps them interested in China, several members of the panel related the narrative of the country to that of a good story, the ending of which is still unknown. As Wong stated, "no one has seen this model exist at this size before;" it is an experiment, the most accomplished authoritarian country of its kind. And as a country in constant flux, China provides intellectual excitement to those interested in its future. Khan accurately summarized the root of this excitement, the unpredictability of the country's path, when he said "if we predict it, we will be wrong, for sure."

Reported by Renny Grishpan

Video: Edward Wong on China's microblogs and political change (3 min., 3 sec.)

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Photos: Prominent Journalists, Scholars Turn Out for Asia Society's ChinaFile Launch