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.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

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.”

be­came

im­por­tant

fig­ures.

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 ray­mondzhou@chi­nadaily.com.cn

YuHongyan con­trib­uted to the story.

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