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Andrew Jacobs on his experience being a reporter in China

Photograph of Andrew JacobsAndrew Jacobs has been a reporter for The New York Times since 1995. Over the years, he has covered a variety of beats, from the New York City Police Department and criminal courts, to the American South, Styles and New Jersey politics. He is currently based in New York City and covers a number of topics, including Brazil and China's relationship with the rest of the world.

Jacobs was part of a team of reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of the September 11 attacks in Manhattan, and in 2009 he was part of a team of reporters that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting related to the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. On October 18, 2016, Mr. Jacobs spoke with Caroline Willian CMC '17.

How did you become interested in China and what led you to become a reporter for the New York Times in China?

My interest in China started with my sister. She was one of the first exchange students from the U.S. to China. She went over in 1983, and spent a year there. That was a really interesting time — it came right after ten years of darkness when China was totally closed off. So, she would tell me her stories, and they got me interested. A few years later I went to NYU and I studied Mandarin. I then took my junior year off and traveled around Asia. I ended up in China for four months, traveling around. That was also a very interesting time. It was the first few years of their opening up to the outside world. So that got me even more into in China. When I graduated from NYU, I went back and taught English for a year in Wuhan, a city in central China. I left during the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. I had to leave abruptly. I came back to New York, did a million different things, and finally became a journalist. The foreign editor at my paper was a China hand as well — he had been in China for the Wall Street Journal and then the New York Times. He asked me to go back for the Olympics because he knew I had this China connection. I ended up staying for seven and a half years.

You began your reporting from China right before the 2008 Olympics and left China in 2015. Briefly, what were the most profound changes, socially, economically, and politically, you have observed in your time in China? What were some of the big stories during your time there?

Economically, when I got there the U.S. was in the throes of our recession, but China was growing like gangbusters. They had double-digit growth, and that growth continued for quite a while. Over the years, there was a huge construction boom, a lot of it financed by the government. There was a lot of infrastructure development, new airports, new train stations, new high-speed train lines and highways. That was interesting to see, especially in contrast to the U.S. where we invest so little in new infrastructure.

Politically, I got there towards the end of Hu Jintao’s time, so there was a lot of jockeying for succession inside the party. There was the scandal of Bo Xilai. He was an up and coming politician, the party secretary of Chongqing, and a princeling. He was seen as a potential competitor to Xi Jinping. So, as luck would have it, his wife murdered a British businessman. She was said to be crazy, but that incident became an excuse to take him down. That was quite a dramatic thing to see happen. The way it unfolded was that his right-hand man had a falling out with Bo Xilai, and took refuge in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. The Chinese police surrounded the U.S. consulate and refused to let him out. Eventually, there was some agreement that, even though he was being thrown out to the wolves, he wouldn’t be executed. But he did tell the U.S. a lot, and gave a lot of information about his patron Bo Xilai. It all unfolded from there. That was a great drama to watch and cover.

There was another huge figure, a super powerful public security guy, Zhou Yongkang, who was in charge of the police, the courts. But then he was taken down, too by Xi Jinping, China’s new leader. Xi took out a lot of people after he rose to the top. That was a pretty amazing thing to see happen. As for Zhou, he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison. The communist party seems like a giant mafia. No one’s hands are clean, and when they want to take you out, they know everything about you, exactly what you’ve done. When you’ve fallen out of favor, it doesn’t take much to take you down. They use various excuses about corruption or abuse of power, or things such as “breaking party rules.” when The Communist Party has a parallel justice system. That means when you’re a party member you don’t have access to the courts. They just disappear you into this parallel system, where they can hold you as long as they want and do anything they want to you until you confess. Once you confess to whatever they want you to confess to, you get thrown out of the party and turned over to the regular courts, and then you get sentenced. 

Socially, oddly enough there has been some kind of social liberalization. In many ways things became more free. Women are pursuing careers freely, for example. I’ve seen it change since I was first there in ‘89. People can date now, without getting in trouble. Back in ‘88, college students didn’t date. There were very strict rules about sex and socializing. For Chinese, it was a problem if they had foreign friends. If you wanted to get divorced you had to get permission from the local government unit. All that stuff has faded away in the ensuing years. But at the same time, politically, things have got much worse, especially with regards to human rights. There used to be a little bit of space there, but that has shrunk since I first visited.

Xi has been cracking down on corruption. Can you feel that while you’re there, even if you’re not a member of the upper tiers of the party?

You can feel it through the propaganda about it. There are TV shows portraying what it’s like inside the anti-corruption unit, parallel to Law & Order. The confessions to corruption are public, and the propaganda is just everywhere. 

Another real tangible way you felt it in Beijing is through the hit the restaurant business took. A lot of restaurant business used to be public officials feeding out of the public trough. They would go out to these extravagant lunches and dinners. That dried up recently. People started being really careful; they wouldn’t want to go out and spend government money. Weddings, driving fancy cars, anything ostentatious were scaled back in that crowd because government officials knew they would get in trouble for that. 

What was it like being an American journalist in China? What restrictions were you placed under? What sort of daily difficulties you encounter as a journalist who is trying to do nothing but his job?

Generally, you’re pretty free. You don’t have to check in with anyone, no one’s telling you directly what you can and cannot do. But there is a very elaborate system of controls. It starts with monitoring your cell phone, so the party can know the people that you’re talking to. A lot of the voices that Western journalism relied on, the critics, especially, were monitored. So they more or less know what you were doing. They could also tail you, if you went out to Western China, the Tibetan areas, or Uighur areas in the far west. They would follow you out there, and make it hard to interview people. In rural areas, once they found out you were there as a journalist, they would tail you. Sometimes they’d make you leave the county. Local officials were pretty aggressive, as well. They didn’t want you reporting on something, even if it was innocuous stuff. What they didn’t realize was that you were still going to write your story, but now the focus was going to be on how ridiculous the local government behaved trying to get you out. In some ways that would become the better story. 

During your career as a journalist, how did you see the Chinese government’s control of the freedom of information as affecting the Chinese people? Did you see it as successfully limiting their understanding of the political and social realities in China?

The educated in Chinese often ask, “Why does the New York Times write these ‘biased,’ negative things about China?” There’s a feeling that we’re out to get China, or we’re making China look bad. That’s the result of their patriotic education, which has been a mission of the government since Tiananmen. There was a concerted effort after that debacle. The young people were just so anti-party. They wanted the Western-style freedoms. So the government made a concerted effort to use patriotism in the education system to make people love the party and the country. A lot of Chinese now, people like you at the Claremont Colleges and at other universities across the country, they equate the party with the country and if you criticize the party or the government, you’re somehow criticizing China and the Chinese people. They conflate these very separate things, and their emotions get all wrapped up. It’s an affront to them — they want to know “why can’t we hear positive things about China?” After I write a lot of articles, I’ll get emails from Chinese who are upset with me. They’ll say I’m attacking China. I have to explain the basics of Western-style journalism: that we come from a critical perspective; that we’re the watch dogs. We’re not trying to attack. We’re just following the stories that need to be told.

The Chinese population is currently characterized by nationalistic pride, as well as a desire for liberalization. How do these two sentiments coexist?

Most people actually do want liberalization. Most people would welcome elections. There’s definitely a hard left, the Maoists, who are similar to our right wing. They’re left, but they’re conservative. They want to go back to another time; they romanticize the past. They like the strong man and the Maoist model. They think it works better, which is crazy, because that led to years of economic deprivation and chaos. Meanwhile, most people want free elections, but the government dishes a line about how democracy would be bad for China. They say that free elections would produce chaos, that it would be bad for stability. A lot of people, even highly educated people, have bought that line. It’s very contradictory phenomenon because on the one hand most Chinese will say they want free elections and that they want liberties like the U.S. has. But if you push them into a corner, they’ll say things like, you know, China’s not ready for democracy. They would argue that the “quality” of the people is not quite up for it and that they’re not developed enough to be able to choose their own leaders, that it’s better that the government chooses them for us. They’ve bought that line because who tells them that but the party in power. There’s definitely a contradictory mindset that’s between wanting more freedom and defending the government and their system. It’s often not very logical.

What narrative does the Chinese government construct with respect to human rights? Does the population at large seem to buy the narrative?

The long time communist party narrative is that human rights are comprised of the rights to housing, food, education, and healthcare. This is a completely different set of values than what we have in the West, which I would say are the established definition. They’ve tried to use their definition for many years, and have tried to confuse it with some of the real issues about human rights, injustice, and rule of law. They like to emphasize that according to those indices, they’ve done quite well. Illiteracy is very low, the quality of education is high. Basic health care is pretty accessible for all. No one is hungry, and everyone has housing. If you use those indices, the Chinese government has done really well. I wouldn’t call them human rights, but they do. 

At the same time, I don’t think they’ve successfully convinced the outside world to follow their notions of human rights. I also don’t think they’ve done a very good job internally. I don’t think most people actually buy the idea that China has done well with human rights. Even in the smallest village, people will come up to you and talk to you about how they lack them. They clearly understand. What people really get frustrated with more than anything is the lack of justice, and the lack of fairness. At the end of the day, what China lacks is basic justice. For ordinary people, when they have their land confiscated, or when they've been fired from a job wrongfully, or their kid has been denied education because they’ve pissed off a local official, they get frustrated with the system. All these small kinds of injustices are what people associate with human rights. Maybe for them it’s not to being able to elect their president, they just want fairness in their everyday lives.

It’s often said that ordinary Chinese people have a love-hate relationship with the U.S. To what extent do you sense this complex attitude in your interactions with the Chinese people as an American journalist?

For the most part, Chinese people really do admire and look up to the U.S. But they also are aware that there are things that are quite unpleasant about us. Often, people will say things referring to America as to “the world police”, They’ll say it snidely because they know we interfere with other governments, and we start wars, while China doesn't start wars, and they don’t meddle in other countries domestic affairs. So look down on the us criticize us for that, perhaps rightly so. But they do look up the notion that in our system, everyone starts off on a level playing field, and everyone can make it. There’s a sense of social mobility they admire. They also definitely envy the freedoms. 

They’ll switch between the two feelings quickly. If they’re feeling affronted or attacked, you can suddenly go from the beloved American to the imperialist, or a spy. People get pissed off at you and suddenly they think you’re trying to trample on their Chineseness and their dignity. That’s true of a lot of people. There’s always sensitivity to reporters, especially. Some people may also see you as a spy. That comes from decades of indoctrination and propaganda that a lot of reporters are probably also spies. 

A lot of changes have occurred since Xi Jinping came to power. Your stay in China overlapped the tenure of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. How would compare the impact of these two leaders on China society? Specifically, do you sense dramatic difference in terms of style and substance of their policies regarding the role of the government in the lives of ordinary citizens?

Hu Jintao was a fairly flat person. He didn’t have much of a persona. He was a classic technocrat, not a very strong leader. There was a sense of that he was adrift. Corruption was flourishing, and he wasn’t addressing some underlying structural economic issues. I wouldn’t say he was very popular. As far as repression goes, I wouldn’t say he was a liberal in any way, but when Xi Jinping came into power it became clear that things could get worse, in terms of repression. 

Xi Jinping, on the other hand, is definitely a very strong leader. I wouldn’t say he’s charismatic, but he has more dimension to him. He’s seen as a bit more of an everyman — he’s made an appearance at a restaurant to go out and buy steamed buns, and he’ll go out and hold his own umbrella. He was trying to cultivate this image more of a man of the people, even if he’s not at all, he’s a princeling. He’s consolidated a lot of power. He has very intense control over military, and he’s the chief guy in the economy, whereas in the past the Prime Minister has been more of the economics guy. He’s trying to become a paramount leader, in the style of Deng Xiaoping or Mao. There’s talk of him wanting to stay in power longer than ten years, which is standard maximum for recent Chinese leaders. So maybe he’s going to try to skirt that rule. He also definitely has tried to make waves with corruption (whether that will stick, I don’t know). Generally, he has made things much, much tighter. Internet, legal activism, journalism, all of that is on a much shorter leash. 

Author: 
Caroline Willian