A JOURNALIST BECOMES THE STORY
The longest-serving foreign correspondent in China has not only covered 34 years of the country’s economic and social reforms but also has figured, sometimes directly, in its news and spasms of change. Raymond Zhou reports.
The biggest scoop Filipino journalist Jaime FlorCruz got was in 1991, when he reported Jiang Qing’s death days China’s official pronouncement. before
Recalling his only encounter with Mao Zedong’s wife and the mastermindbehindChina’s “model operas”, the just-retired CNN Beijing bureau chief remembers being taken to a performance of The Red Detachment of Women at the Capital Theater in 1971, in the first weeks after arriving in the country.
Several minutes before the show, the lights wentdimand leaders were ushered in. Some audience members watched their seating section rather than the stage.
FlorCruz, then 20 years old, saw Jiang “making gestures”, which seemed to be “instructions on how the actors’ hair should have been done”.
FlorCruz agrees Jiang was “a villain and also a product of her time. She was ahead of her time. If she played that role now, it probably wouldn’t be seen as excess.
“Scoops like that are rare,” says FlorCruz, who forged an illustrious career in China working for US media. He joined Time magazine’s Beijing Bureau in 1982 and served as its chief from 1990 to 2000. He then joined CNN Beijing.
“I’d rather be late and accurate than be the first and wrong.”
When the rumor of a former Chinese leader’s death surfaced a while ago, “there was a lot of pressure on us to report it”. After calling his friends for confirmation, he decided not to. The rumor proved false.
“You’re the rock!” a colleague told him.
“I was taking a gamble,” FlorCruz says.
“But it was also based on information, on the people I trust and onmy sixth sense.”
There are chapters in FlorCruz’s life with twists and turns perhaps beyond most screenwriters’ imaginations.
When he first arrived in China in 1971 as a leftist student, his passport was stamped with the note: “This is not valid in communist-controlled countries.” That made his entry into China technically illegal.
“Chinaandthe Philippines did not have a diplomatic relationship ... and (president Ferdinand) Marcos was still following in the footsteps of the US, which treated China as an enemy.”
Little did he know that, a month prior, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had secretly called on China to pave the way for Nixon’s landmark visit. Relations between China and the United States would thaw.
“How could this happen? The biggest imperialist country is shaking hands with a communist leader,” he wondered.
By then he was already working on a farm inHunan province.
“My Chinese friends on the farm weresimilarly perplexedandfelt like they couldn’t understand it either.”
Soon Marcos visited China, and Mao kissed Imelda Marcos’ hand. Newspapers printed the photos.
“Iwasa little worried. But not really.”
The Filipina first lady expressed her willingness to take FlorCruz back to the Philippines.
But he didn’t want to be used for “propaganda purposes”.
FlorCruz’s knowledge of China came from Mao’s Little Red Book, which he had to hide while in his homeland, and The East Is Red, a three-hour movie chronicling the Communist Party’s history via singing and dancing. He defied government decree by watching the film.
FlorCruz found “the red China behind the iron curtain ... a very romantic place” and his first few weeks “a romantic experience”.
Farming in Hunan, while physically rigorous, brought him closer with ordinary Chinese. “It put us back to reality,” he says. “Clearly it was not the utopia that we thought China was.”
In 1976, when Deng Xiaoping fell from power the second time, Flor- Cruz’s close friend, a Party member, confided to him: “Deng is actually a good man.”
That shocked FlorCruz and awakened in him the need to look at things in “an independent and freethinking way”.
Gradually FlorCruz realized “the ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76) has taken its toll on the lives of many people. Later I also discovered that my close friend and his family were divided along the ideological line”, even though the period’s worst excesses had passed by the time he’d arrived.
He pinpoints the lack of entertainment, such as imported movies, as “the worst punishment or sacrifice that I had to go through in my first few years in China. It was less the physical rigors of working on the farm or in the fishing corporation but more of the boredom, the monotony of life most people suffered that time.”
FlorCruz was among the first batch accepted into college when higher education was restored a year after the “cultural revolution”.
As part of the graduating class of ’82, he was a “schoolmate with Li Keqiang”, China’s current premier, and a “classmate with Bo Xilai”, Chongqing municipality’s deposed leader. Many schoolmates at Peking University
This carries much currency in a country reliant on relationships.
But FlorCruz says he “hardly relied on friends for scoops” but more “as a sounding board”.
“I meet with them not only when I need to find information, but I keep in touch with them socially. So when I need to find out anything, it’s becauseweare friends, not because I am a journalist.”
FlorCruz cites three career accomplishments.
One is his 1990 reporting on Zhu Rongji’s unveiling of Shanghai’s Pudong district. When he flew there with colleagues to witness the unveiling ceremony, he saw a vast swath of paddies, a shipyard and warehouses.
“We never expected such a complete change in just a decade,” he says.
The other two are covering the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and Henan province’s HIV/AIDS crisis.
“After our story aired, donations poured in.”
However, in 2008 FlorCruz and his Beijing staff “got into trouble” — possibly the biggest trouble for an international media organization in China’s recent history — when CNN was denounced by some Chinese incensed by its reporting in the runup to the Beijing Olympics.
While not admitting that the reporting from his own bureau under his leadership was “biased” as critics charged, FlorCruz compares reporting on China to “three blind men trying to describe an elephant”.
“We reported what we saw,” he insists, adding that China is so vast and complex it takes a whole body of journalistic works to do it justice.
Unfortunately, most of his critics didn’t have access to all of CNN’s China reports, he explains.
FlorCruz wishes he’d done more stories on Chinese culture— not just on human rights and politics.
“China is not this perfect, romanticized country, and nor is it the big, bad villain some make it out to be,” he says.
As “a proud Filipino” who knows China inside and out, FlorCruz says he is “willing to work for FilipinoChina friendship” but will leave it to “the wisdom of top leaders and diplomats of the two countries” to resolve ongoing disputes.
“I believe the relationship will improve, and I hope trade and tourism will not be affected.”
On a lighter note, he recalls the early years when “half of Beijing’s expatriates would walk in the lobby of the Beijing Hotel” on any given afternoon.
Now the expat community is so much bigger, and some members have even succeeded in showbiz. Asked about celebrities like Mark Roswell — whose Chinese name, Dashan, is widely known to Chinese learning English — FlorCruz says, philosophically: “I’m the first Dashan on TV.”
He guest-starred in a 10-episode English teaching program called Let’s Sing on TV in the late ’70s.
Perhaps because television wasn’t then commonplace in China, FlorCruz didn’t become a household name.
Recently, a hotel clerk in Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu was delighted to recognize him from the program.
“So, can I get a discount?” Cruz asked, jokingly.
Flor- Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org
YuHongyan contributed to the story.