One of my favorite habits is meeting people and answering questions about my job. I always say: “I’m a conservative Republican, a U.S. citizen and I work for a Chinese state-run media outlet called China Radio International, where I write a daily political column on China-world affairs.” After answering, I await their response. I usually see people caught with a facial expression of shock and disbelief. Many will ask if I’m joking. But if they have a cell phone with an Internet connection, I suggest they log on to the CRI English website, where they’ll see my photo with a column included.
After people realize I’m not joking and I didn’t escape from an insane asylum, I often get asked these questions: “Do you copy and paste your column from Chinese government propaganda documents? Do you worry about getting sent to a prison camp if you write a negative comment about the Communist Party of China? Are you followed by suspicious-looking men wherever you go? Did the Chinese government set up a honey trap (a Chinese woman spy) to trick you into writing a column about China?
My answer to all these questions is “no.” I actually stand behind everything I write and often I do criticize Chinese government policy or Chinese society. If you have any doubts, I’ve written about calling for an end to China’s one-child policy, denounced China’s railway ministry for not placing safety first and accumulating massive debts and published a number of other complaints.
I will admit that some political editing occurs with my column, but the so-called political editing has not been as extensive as I anticipated before taking the job. I’ve also learned much about China’s political culture since I arrived in Beijing last October. China really is on the path to more political and market-oriented reforms, especially since they hired someone like me to write a political column about their country for a government-run media outlet.
Trust me, not even my coworkers would identify me as a bootlicking propagandist for the Chinese government. I’ve already earned notoriety for being too outspoken, too confrontational and too opinionated for the CRI office environment. During one conflict, I posed this question to a Chinese news editor: “I warned before you hired me that I could be an aggressive reporter, but you folks complain. Why did you bother to hire me in the first place?”
After a long pause, my editor responded, “Tom, we kind of see you as a long-term investment. Right now, China is pushing for reforms — and that includes the media — but as you already know, everything in Beijing moves slowly. We at CRI look at you and think you are the Bill O’Reilly of Fox News in China. We hope that when more reforms are pushed through, you will be our Bill O’Reilly for CRI.”
That answer startled me, but it also showed a side of China that few people have witnessed. China is moving forward on reforms, but the slow pace can seem frustrating to those without a proper understanding of the country.
On many occasions, I’ve experienced the hardships of the slow pace of reforms, and I’ve found that humor is an effective tool for dealing with it. On other occasions, I’ve taken note of strange coincidences that have been nothing more than strange coincidences.
For instance, one time I wrote an article for DallasBlog.com after I got a scoop from CRI that an admiral in China’s navy is a fan of Lady Gaga, the pop singer. The next day, two People’s Liberation Army soldiers were standing next to me as I was working at my desk. This was the first time PLA soldiers marched into our office and I thought for sure I was going to be deported to the U.S. for outing a Chinese naval admiral about his love for Lady Gaga. But actually, one of the soldiers went on a date with a woman who sat next to me and they were waiting for her to return to hand over her missing cell phone.
Another time, a producer of a radio program asked if I supported the pro-life movement. Instead of answering the question, I began clearing my desk and was about to walk away. The producer then explained they needed to find a pro-life reporter, because whenever they talk about abortion they only have pro-choice speakers. They needed me to take the other side on abortion arguments. After I appeared on the radio show, the producer complained that I wasn’t controversial enough. I was never asked to appear on the show again.
A week ago, I walked in front of a basketball court where PLA soldiers were practicing their military drills while holding on to their machine guns. I immediately thought, if I had a camera, I would post a story for the Dallas Blog with the headline reading: “PLA wages war on NBA after Yao Ming’s retirement.”
Anyways, there are so many stories to tell that I could write a book, but wait, I have a day job and that’s writing political commentary about China for a Chinese state-run media outlet. I realize that China is not a perfect country, but no nation is perfect. I support its efforts to implement reforms and encourage Beijing to continue on this path. So long as the Chinese are sincere about the reforms, I’ll have a job at CRI. Considering the state of the U.S. economy, I truly appreciate having a job.
Tom McGregor is a China-World Affairs columnist for China Radio International and reporter and editor for www.dallasblog.com. He currently lives in Beijing, China and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.