Michael Standaert, China- blogger for Huffington Post

 

By Wendy Wohlfeill

Picture Slideshow

“Chinese and Americans are much more similar than most people think. Chinese are natural entrepreneurs, hard workers, and just want to live happy lives. The government is another story…”

After working for various newspapers and publications in Iowa, California and Brussels, Michael Standaert found himself first working in Beijing, China after taking a job at a state-run English publication. After several employment changes, he now works, freelances and blogs from China’s southern city of Shenzhen. Standaert is now an officially accredited reporter for the Bureau of National Affairs covering mainly environmental policy and infrastructure development and is a blogger for the Huffington Post. His freelance work covers the areas of China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia and has been picked up by the Washington Times, San Francisco Chronicle and South China Morning Star.

The hardest part is getting people to talk.”

Standaert said the biggest obstacles his faces as a journalist in China is convincing average citizens to talk to him, while also trying to obtain needed information form the government.

“If you contact a Chinese ministry with questions, they tell you to fax them your questions with your official stamp on the paper. In the year and three months I’ve been accredited here, I’ve sent dozens of faxes and NOT ONE has been answered.”

Standaert obtains the majority of his “official” information from press releases and government website.

“The government affects the stories I’m covering all the time. It’s often frustrating, sometimes a bit deadening, but  you work through it.”

“You’re always having to just search, search, search for the most basic information, that when you finally get a morsel you have to run with what you have and get it out. It really drags out the process needlessly.”

Standaert said that foreign publications (like the Bureau of National Affairs) are most interested in stories that tell policy makers or businesses what they need to be aware of so they can make better decisions on how to operate in China. His freelance work that is picked up by U.S. papers tends to deal with labo r issues and people who have been harmed by pollution.

“I’d like to get out and do more traveling and do some more interesting stories, but  it’s hard to sell those “hard journalism” stories to newspapers or magazines at the moment since budgets are so tight.”

Some of Standaert’s articles:

Waiting for New Bloodsheed- Washington Times

China Resolves Pollution Case, avoids Suit- Washington Times

China’s ‘Cancer Villages’ Heavily Polluted- Washington Times

Standaert’s Q &A is below:

1) Could you please begin by telling me a bit about yourself? How you started in journalism? How you ended up in China?

I started out covering high school and college sports while still in college for the Quad-City Times, worked for the University of Iowa student newspaper, and during my final undergrad year was a roving correspondent for the Des Moines Register. I didn’t really take many journalism classes as I was an English major, but did take as many writing courses as possible, and was widely read by that time and generally curious. Plus I was learning on the job with my first work, so didn’t really see the need of a journalism degree. After Iowa I went to Europe and did a MA in European Journalism through Cardiff University in Wales, though only five months was spent there at the end of the program doing the thesis paper. The other six or seven months were split between the Netherlands and Denmark, and I spent a month in Brussels in the middle starting on my dissertation. The program was for people who had already been journalists, young journalists, and mainly focused on covering the EU. I was the only American out of maybe 15 students in the program. After that I went to Brussels for a year and freelanced, then returned to the U.S., spent some time living at my parents home, then moved back to Iowa City and started on a novel which was eventually published and wrote a non-fiction book on Evangelical fiction. I also freelanced a lot from there since the Iowa Caucuses were around that time and I also started interviewing a lot of the writers coming through the International Writing Program there. Through that I met the girl that eventually became my wife – a Canadian-born Taiwanese (CBT?) – she was my interpreter for some interviews with Chinese authors. Later we moved to California where she was in an interpretation and translation MA program, and I got a job as a writer for a foundation, mainly documenting the foundation’s social entrepreneurship work abroad and producing a newspaper/newsletter for the community in Big Sur, CA, looking at issues the community faces (they don’t have a paper down there), so was sort of still functioning as a journalist. Between 2004-2007 I also did a lot of book reviewing, mainly for Publisher’s Weekly and Los Angeles Times. In 2007 I got a job offer with a state-run English-language publication in Beijing called Beijing Review, and worked there as an editor on the business team for a year, then worked for several months as an editor at an art center in Beijing, then a few months at Asia Weekly before it closed down in late 2008. It was then I started freelancing from Beijing, some things for San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Times, and eventually got contracted by Bureau of National Affairs as a reporter covering mainly environmental policy, officially accredited in July 2009. This July I moved to Shenzhen in South China where I’m working for BNA but also providing more coverage of Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia as well as South China. I also do freelance work for some other outlets, since I’m the only officially accredited foreign journalist based in Shenzhen.

2) What topics about China are the most sought after by foreign newspapers (or blogs) today? How do you find these stories? Could you give a few examples of recent events you’ve covered?

It really depends on who you are writing for. For BNA, which has 350 different specialized publications, I mainly concentrate on environmental policy and infrastructure development. Business issues. Things that policy makers or businesses need to be aware of so they can make decisions on how to operate in China. A lot of the BNA work is coverage of conferences that officials or key people in these areas are at and talking. Or press conferences, but here in Shenzhen those are few and far between compared to Beijing.

For one of my other clients, I do profiles of entrepreneurs and businesses in Shenzhen or South China. For another client it is more development or environmental stories; I’ve done some things on labor issues and people harmed by environmental pollution here lately for them. For another client, they seem to want business-related analysis pieces, so I’m doing something on the state of philanthropy in China for them at the moment. I’d like to get out and do more traveling and do some more interesting stories, but it’s hard to sell those “hard journalism” stories to newspapers or magazines at the moment since budgets are so tight. I don’t write for the SFC any more since they basically cut their foreign freelance budget. And for the WashTimes, the editor I was working with there, who was really good at letting me pitch and write about what interested me, is gone. Now they only seem to want stories that touch on national security issues, and I’m not really in a position to provide those.

3) What is the hardest part of your job? How often do you feel the government affects the stories or coverage you are getting?

The hardest part is getting people to talk. Not many people know what BNA is, compared to something like AP, Reuters or a major paper like the NYT. Since I’m focusing on policy a lot, I have to try to get the “official” word, but that is nearly impossible unless you get it through a press conference. If you contact a Chinese ministry with questions, they tell you to fax them your questions with your official stamp on the paper. In the year and three months I’ve been accredited here, I’ve sent dozens of faxes and NOT ONE has been answered. We (my assistant) follows up with calls, and sometimes they just say they are refusing to answer, other times they say they will but never do. SO, much of what I have to do is follow the official announcements, which means reading through translations of regulations, laws, statements, then trying to find experts that can comment on these. Often they know about as much as I do (from reading those texts) so don’t really add too much, so a lot of the time I have to end up writing about what the policies or statements say, or take information from official state-run media, which kind of functions like the government’s big PR machine. So yes, the gov’t affects the stories I’m covering all the time. It’s often frustrating, sometimes a bit deadening, but you work through it. I’ve only had one run-in with officials blocking my coverage in the field. I was in Yunnan along the Burma border doing some stories on refugees fleeing fighting there about a year back. I got my story and interviews at a border town, then was heading out and we were followed by several cars for an hour, then we thought we lost them, but had to stop where a landslide had covered the road, so they caught up with us. It was a bit tense for a while, but the head of the Yunnan Foreign Affairs Office turned out to be nice after a while and just told us to leave the area the next day. Technically foreign journalists can go anywhere in China (except Tibet) and talk to whomever they want to, but that’s the central gov’t regulation; provincial and local regulations say they can basically keep journalists out of areas they want to, and they use “safety” as the excuse. This is bullshit basically, since when we came into the area they were letting tourists in (we went through a roadblock and my assistant just said we were tourists). You’d think they’d be more concerned about the safety of tourists, right?

4) Chinese firewalls and Internet restrictions can be a hassle for even everyday Internet users in China—how often has your research via the web been compromised?  Have you found ways around obtaining the information or interviews that you need?

The GFW (Great Fucking Wall, as some people here call it) isn’t really a big deal for me since I use a VPN to blast through it. Still, the GFW shape-changes and messes with my VPN now and then, so i have to do a little tinkering. It’s more annoying than anything that really impacts my work.

5) Arresting and jailing journalists is still a common practice in China today, how does this impact the job you are doing? Have you ever felt unsafe?

For the unsafe, see the #3 question. I felt unsafe for a little while during that confrontation, but it worked itself out. I don’t think arresting and jailing Chinese journalists is all that common any more. The biggest worry they have, if they’re trying to do good work, is being harassed by hired thugs in various localities. But a lot of Chinese journalists are complacent since they have to operate within a very restricted environment.

6) Which are the hardest stories to cover? How do you do it?

The hardest ones are the ones that I don’t end up covering at all, mainly since I don’t have outlets for them, or there’s not much interest in individual cases of harassment or abuse since that happens a lot to certain people. A lot of the things like people harmed by pollution, or people who have been relocated from their homes because of a development and have not gotten the compensation they think they deserve, are hard to cover because there are many incidents like these all the time, so how do you just focus on one incident? In my daily BNA work, most of the stories are hard to cover because you’re never getting the full information and you’re not able to get into the thinking of the government or the underlying debates that are going on, very well, since there is so little transparency here. But here’s something for you … when I got here I signed up for the Hong Kong gov’t press release service. Beautiful, wonderful, they send A LOT of information and you can get spokespeople on the phone or at least have someone answer an e-mail question (in time, sometimes it take a week or so if they’re busy or it is complicated). So I’m hoping in the future these Chinese ministries can send their press relations teams (they still call them their propaganda departments) to Hong Kong to study up on how this is done. And it’s not that difficult to do. With BNA I’m just trying to get the most accurate information about policies that are forthcoming or that have just been released, and the stuff I get from Hong Kong is wonderful. With what comes out of China, a bit might be released in a Xinhua report, and another bit later on will appear on a gov’t website. you’re always having to just search search search for the most basic information, that when you finally get a morsel you have to run with what you have and get it out. It really drags out the process needlessly.

7) Is the average Chinese citizen relying on only the government-run newspaper for their news? Has the younger Chinese population started to reach out to other sources (blogs, foreign news etc)

Yeah, the average Chinese person is probably just following the newspapers from where they live, many that are gov’t run or controlled, or if they are not, they do get ‘direction’ from higher up if something is a bit too hot for their taste. But it’s different in different places. Some of the best, freest journalism is being done in Guangzhou and in Guangdong province where I live, with Southern Daily, Southern Weekend, these papers. They really push the boundaries if they can. It helps that they are far from Beijing and also Guangdong is a pretty wealthy province (higher GDP than Saudi Arabia). Certainly a lot of younger people do reach out to other sources, but I tend to think that most young people are too busy just trying to get on with their lives that they don’t follow the news much. We see this with the case of Liu Xiaobo who just got the Nobel Peace prize. I asked about 8 people I know in their 20s about this, if they’d heard of him before, and only one had and the others were curious to know more, but it was hard for them to find information, or they didn’t really care, they were too busy with their lives. Then there is also pop culture interests, which takes up a lot of their time, as it does with a lot of young people anywhere. So they’re a bit insulated in many ways. Some do search and reach out, but I don’t think it’s really that big of a proportion.

8) What is the best part about living in China? How long have you been there? If you could tell an average citizen in the U.S. something they might not know about China or it’s people, what would it be?

I like living in China a lot. I don’t have to drive anywhere, public transportation is great, or else I can ride my bike around. Only thing is it often takes a long time to get from one side of town to the other, perhaps two hours. The food is cheap and excellent. I can walk outside and buy fresh tropical fruits cheap just two minutes from my apartment. Or if I’m out walking the dog in the morning, I can buy a box of steamed buns or dumplings and come home and eat. I can have a 2 1/2 bedroom apartment for about $650 and can see the ocean and mountains every day from my windows. The people are very friendly here in Shenzhen, more so than in Beijing I think. My Chinese is still not great, but getting better. I came to Beijing in March 2007 with my wife, but she’s now studying in Canada, so I’m here in Shenzhen (since July) on my own and having to use Chinese more. If I could tell the average U.S. citizen about China or it’s people? Chinese and Americans are much more similar than most people think. Chinese are natural entrepreneurs, hard workers, and just want to live happy lives,  the government is another story, but that’s mainly because they want to control and keep themselves in power, so a certain paranoia about those under you sets in. But the people are quite similar in many ways to Americans. If you look at the past 30 years, with China given much more freedom, at least to do business in a more free-market way, imagine what China could be like if it also had the same political reform? China wants to create an ‘innovative society” … that’s a big aim now, but it won’t happen without the free flow of ideas and a bit of the chaos that democracy brings with it. Some people here know that. Until that happens much of the ‘innovation’ will still be copying like what’s happened the past 30 years, so they’ll always be a step behind. If they do reform politically, which I think they’ll eventually have to do as their middle class pushes for more representation, they could eventually have a vibrant democracy. I don’t think it a change, even a fast change to that, would be so chaotic as the ruling party here says it would be. I think they use that to instill fear in a change like that. There are like 80,000 public protests/outbursts every year now, so I’m not sure being more democratic would increase that.

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