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How to Cover China, with CNBC’s Beijing Bureau Chief

What’s it like working for an American news outlet in China? The short answer: more complicated than you or I can imagine.

On this episode Watson’s director Ed Steinfeld talks with CNBC’s Beijing Bureau Chief Eunice Yoon '95. Eunice has reported on some of the biggest stories in China’s recent past, from the Beijing Olympics in 2008 to the coronavirus today. They discuss what it’s like practicing journalism in a country not known for its openness to the press, covering coronavirus from the place where it all began, and why reporting on life in China is more important now than ever.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.

Transcript

EUNICE YOON: Sometimes people will have an almost cartoonish view of what China is or just say that, well, China says this, China says that. And actually, even within the government, there are a lot of different perspectives. They don't always come out but there are. And that's where I find that I want to bring nuance to the story.

SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. What's it like working for an American news outlet in China? The short answer-- more complicated than you or I can imagine.

But there are people doing it, and that's a good thing because the transformation of China over the last quarter century is one of the biggest stories of our time. And that was true before a global pandemic started inside its borders.

For a certain type of journalist, despite all its challenges, or maybe a little bit because of them too, it's the beat of a lifetime. On this episode, we hear from one such journalist. Watson's director Ed Steinfeld talked with CNBC's Beijing bureau chief Eunice Yoon.

Eunice has reported on some of the biggest topics in China's recent past, from the Beijing Olympics in Two Thousand and Eight to the coronavirus today. They discuss what it's like trying to practice journalism in a country not known for its openness to the press. They also talk about what it was like covering coronavirus from the place where it all began and why reporting on life in China is more important now than ever. Here's Ed.

ED STEINFELD: Eunice Yoon, thanks so much for joining us today on Trending Globally.

EUNICE YOON: Thank you so much for having me. And I'm honored to be here.

ED STEINFELD: Well, we're honored to have you. I was hoping you could just walk us through what it's been like covering the pandemic. And not just covering the pandemic in China, in Beijing, but living in it.

EUNICE YOON: It's been an experience, something that I never thought that I would be living through. And I'm sure that now so many people in the rest of the world never thought that they'd find themselves in the current situation that they're in. But yeah.

In the early days, it was interesting because in January, we had all heard that there was an outbreak of some mystery illness in Wuhan, what turns out to be the epicenter of the coronavirus. And it didn't sound as though it was particularly serious, though because of the very unknown nature of it, we were all wondering how it was going to transpire.

And then it was in late January when we started to realize that this was going to be a serious global issue. And a lot of that is because the authorities themselves, after what appeared to be some foot dragging and after we had heard just from unofficial sources that the virus, despite the fact that the authorities had said that it wasn't able to move human to human, was actually moving human to human.

And when the top authority and one of China's top epidemiologists finally said that this was transmitting from person to person, that eventually we saw Wuhan lock down. And then we started seeing a lot of restrictions in Beijing with not a whole lot of explanation in those early days, which made people very nervous about how serious it could be.

ED STEINFELD: Tell me a little bit about what those restrictions were like and how were people around you responding to those restrictions.

EUNICE YOON: Well, the restrictions were temperature checks. Suddenly we would-- getting in and out of my house or going to the office was becoming a lot harder, where you would have to either register IDs or they would ask you about your security card for your house and also for the office. And things just became much more difficult.

I think it was also the unknown nature of it. You would first see that there's a temperature check. Then suddenly outside your house there's a guy in a hazmat suit, and he's asking for your temperature. And he won't let people in to the residential compound because they are concerned about outsiders.

Then the subway suddenly had people in hazmat suits. And again, even though the government was, on the one hand, saying that this was a serious situation, there wasn't, again, a lot of information. So you were left wondering, how big is this really? And that's what scared a lot of people.

When it comes to masks, the government had said that for Wuhan, everyone had to wear masks. It was required. For the rest of the country, it wasn't required but it was strongly advised. And as you know, when China says that something is strongly advised, then everybody starts to listen.

And so you started to see-- at first it was maybe one in two people would wear masks, and then it became three out of four. And then finally, just in a matter of days, everybody was wearing masks. And life became much more restricted.

ED STEINFELD: At what point did, well, contact tracing, but also just the monitoring of movement come in with smartphone apps? I know with many of my colleagues in China, and even my extended family in China, people at once seemed willing to play by these kinds of rules but also were a little intimidated by the idea that all of their movement was being openly surveilled.

EUNICE YOON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, in China, as you know, people are used to having their privacy invaded by the state. There have already been a lot of surveillance systems here and cameras being set up in different places. So on the one hand, people were used to it on some level probably more than people in other countries, but at the same time it just became very open. And it continues to tighten, actually, when it comes to maybe losing your privacy or having to be monitored by the government.

So you had mentioned some of those apps. We first heard about-- it was an app that tracks where you've been for the past 14 days. And so the government, the authorities, would say, well, you have an option. You can opt not to be a part of this. But when they say there's an option, you can't get into the building where you work if you don't show this travel app.

So then you don't really have an option unless you want to quit your job. In that kind of circumstance, you don't really have an option to decide that you want to retain your privacy.

ED STEINFELD: In so many ways, I feel that because China, time-wise, is ahead of the rest of the world in terms of dealing with the virus, dealing with new clusters, I feel that it's sort of a time machine in a way. You're seeing the future for the United States, for Europe.

With this most recent re-emergence in Beijing of some COVID cases, what's the feel like for reopening? I mean, my sense is that in Beijing and other Chinese cities things were reopening. But what's happened now?

EUNICE YOON: It's still reopening. And the government has made it clear that-- and I'm sure has recognized about the economic fallout of the coronavirus and the lockdowns and how they've affected just economic growth. So you could see a reluctance on the part of the authorities to completely shut down again.

So restaurants are still operating. Everybody is a little bit more careful. Originally, before this resurgence, there was some hope that theaters were going to open, that you would have a lot of people crammed into big stadiums or big venues. But that's now no longer the case. That's been pushed off a bit.

But businesses are moving along. And I think a lot of that is because the government wants to have a bit of a more targeted approach this time in order to try to make sure that it doesn't-- that the economy doesn't suffer in the same way that it did for the past several months.

ED STEINFELD: How do you feel the whole pandemic has affected social relations in China? Just even putting aside the government, what are social relations like?

EUNICE YOON: Well, my sense is that the social relationships here are probably similar in the rest of the world and that is that people are much more careful going out. We're all social creatures so we want to go out. We want to see people. We don't want to be locked down.

The restrictions have been very heavy. So people do want to go out. I was just at a factory where this factory owner was taking part in one of the biggest trade shows in the world, and definitely the largest one in the country, which is the Canton Fair.

They ideally would love to be able to go out and meet people face to face. And despite the fact that the government, which did want to continue to have this Canton Fair go on because of the economic implications, this factory owner said at the end of the day, he really missed meeting people face to face.

And that is one way that business gets done. A lot of people like to look at each other, size each other up, try to decide, can I trust this person? Can I not? And all of those types of things are important for business.

And then same with social relations. I think a lot of people just want to be with others. And so it's been hard. And I think because of that here, one of the things that I saw here was that everybody was on edge with the pandemic.

And when it started to-- you started to see it in other parts of the world, one thing that I thought-- I mean, I wrote about it because I just thought, I want people to know about this, is just the impact that it has on everyone, that you now know-- I mean, you know that everybody is going through something just generally in life, but it really crystallized it for me when you would see a lot of tempers flaring.

I saw a lot more people just fighting in the street or getting into arguments with each other. Couples openly hostile with each other at the grocery store or I saw even in my compound a woman who was carrying around a vacuum cleaner wearing her pajamas. And it was-- that type of stuff you don't usually see but it's because of the pandemic.

This is the time of the pandemic where everyone is going through something. And for me, it just made me think, OK, I have to be a lot more patient when I deal with others because we're all going through the same thing.

ED STEINFELD: You know, what's really interesting you say that. I don't mean to draw an inappropriate comparison but I remember when I was first living in China in Nineteen-Eighty-Nine. And this is right after the--

EUNICE YOON: Wow.

ED STEINFELD: --Tiananmen crackdown. I observed something that-- it sounds to me it's similar. In the fall of Nineteen-Eighty-Nine, I was really struck by what I would see on the street. Couples screaming at each other, sometimes fistfights. It just seemed like there was this degree of-- it wasn't necessarily political but just the social kind of tension.

And then that disappeared in the '90s, two thousands. I just didn't see that anymore. And I'm quite struck by your observation about that. I mean, people, they're humans, obviously, and under very stressful situations.

EUNICE YOON: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that it's interesting that you observed that during the late '80s because I feel that, as time was progressing-- I mean, you mentioned in my bio that I was here in the run up to the Olympics. At that time, there was this feeling that China was going to be open, people were much more relaxed. I felt like the reporting was actually much more relaxed.

And now it's much more tense. And it's not only because of the pandemic but it's because of the current environment right now. And the Xi Jinping administration is much more restrictive generally. And so that trickles down into everything.

I'm not saying that because of the administration that everybody's more tense. I think that's more because of the pandemic. But there isn't as much wiggle room for people to really vent their frustrations here. And so I think that's been spilling out onto the social settings.

ED STEINFELD: You know, I've so admired in recent years the way you've been able to do your journalism despite many challenges, challenges I probably can't even begin to understand. But you mentioned some of them-- the pandemic, but also a different, I think, kind of political environment within China.

Then a different external environment-- all the tensions between China and a lot of the world, but especially the United States. Can you tell me in a little bit more detail just how your day to day life as a journalist has changed, your professional life?

EUNICE YOON: Well, with the pandemic, it's been just a greater awareness, I think, of what is an invisible threat, something that you have to be prepared for you. I mean, I've been OK with hygiene in the past. I mean, I live in China and reported in some far flung areas. So I'm used to kind of areas that don't necessarily-- aren't necessarily the cleanest in the world.

But I am just much more aware of washing my hands or being socially distant from somebody else just for the moment, and making sure that my team and I stay safe. That's primary going around and trying to report this story when you know that that threat is out there.

But in terms of the political environment, yeah, it's become much more restrictive as well. And that was, of course, predating the pandemic, where it's a lot harder to get interviews now. Before it was a challenge but people would still talk. And actually, I remember during some of the big political events-- say, for example, the National People's Congress, which is a major parliamentary session that happens every year.

And in the past, there was a time when you would see politicians who would hold press conferences and actually have a little bit of a debate and have discussions about certain issues. That changed in the past several years. And now, when you go there, there's not a whole lot of discussion about things.

And also, it's just so much harder to get people to talk on the record. And in fact, it's gotten so hard that sometimes people will cancel after they've already agreed to having an interview with you. That happens with quite some frequency.

And I think it's just because people suddenly will have second thoughts and think, oh, this is probably not a good idea for me to be talking to an American news organization. And so then you start back at square one. So there's a lot of that. But it's an important story. So that's why I keep trying to find other ways of telling it if I can't get the interview that I want.

ED STEINFELD: Do you feel this reticence extends in to broader civil society? And are you talking primarily about government officials who are unwilling to do interviews or is it broader than that?

EUNICE YOON: It's much broader than that because, I mean, as you know, even when you're doing business here, the government touches everything. So with companies, they so often will worry about what the implications would be if they were talking with an American news organization.

So some of them are OK, and some have a lot more experience with foreigners. And so they seem to be better or know how to walk the line. And then others are just really scared. And maybe they'll say yes but then later they decide that it's just too much of a risk, and there really is no upside for them from their perspective. So then they decide to change their minds. So that's-- it just permeates everything.

ED STEINFELD: Do you feel you've been affected directly at all by the Trump administration's restrictions on Chinese news outlets, whether it's People's Daily or Xinhua, or China Central TV? Does any of that trickle back down to you or rebound to you?

EUNICE YOON: Yeah. Yeah. It does. Just the other day I was shooting a promo. So this is something for CNBC which it's definitely not sensitive. But we were on the street and we want to show a Chinese street scene. And we were approached by the local community patrol. And the officer said, oh, you're American. We were told that we're not allowed to talk to any American journalists.

And a lot of that is because of the pressure that we're seeing between the US and China, and the tensions, and especially over the media. And so we managed to shoot our promo after a lot of discussion with the officer. But it's still-- it's something that you see a lot.

The other way it's affected us is that the term "fake news" has been almost standardized here, where you often hear Chinese officials-- or even when I'm out reporting I've been asked to show my credentials just to make sure I'm not a fake news journalist. And we did not have that before the Trump administration.

ED STEINFELD: That's really interesting. I mean, in so many parts of the world, the US, North America, Europe, I think it's fair to say we've seen a rise of nationalism, and sometimes ethno-nationalism. And the image here in the US is that that phenomenon is happening in China as well.

To what extent is that accurate? In your day to day interactions with people, do you feel that nationalism is a new thing or a particular muscular form of nationalism is a new thing?

EUNICE YOON: Well, it creeps out in surprising ways. Sometimes you do-- I'll be having a discussion with somebody who I know is very worldly, has traveled around. And suddenly they'll have a very what I think is a hawkish stance on Hong Kong, for example, or on other issues which I wouldn't expect.

And a lot of that is because of this idea that they really want China to do well, of course. And there's a surge of nationalism and pride. But for the most part, there are a lot of people who also just are going about their day and aren't particularly nationalistic. Some people-- I've spoken to people who very quietly would be critical of President Xi Jinping or think that China is going a little bit too hard line.

There's been more recently a switch in China's diplomatic style, whereas in the past, I would say the Chinese diplomat-- Chinese diplomats were much more willing to embrace kind of a traditional and quiet, not confrontational manner. And just recently now we have a lot more diplomats who are described as wolf warriors and who'll go out and be very combative and even appear to back conspiracy theories and go head to head with-- they want to appear as if they're going head to head with the US and the White House.

And that's something that we haven't seen in the past. And I think that the idea behind it is to make China look as though it's strong and tough. But I know a lot of people in China who are Chinese who think that the tactic is just too much and that actually it would be better if there was a quieter, more traditional diplomatic style in order to win over outsiders.

ED STEINFELD: I think that's a really important point. One of the many things I've admired about your reporting is that you cover really hard news and political news but also in the, quote unquote, "lighter stories," whether on style or day to day operations of a factory. To me, that's not light news. Those are stories that reflect the complexity of the society you're in.

And I think the way you've been able to convey that complexity is really admirable. Of course, it's very confusing to outside audiences to make sense of this very complicated place that you're in.

EUNICE YOON: Yeah. No, it's a very complicated place. And yeah. And it's also, you're covering a country of 1.4 billion people. So it's hard because sometimes I'm asked, oh, well, what do all the Chinese think? It's like, well, I don't really know but I could tell you what I think is-- what people around me are saying and what's going on online and based on what's happening in state media. I could talk about all these things.

But yeah, it's a challenge but it's definitely worth it. I mean, China is an amazing place. And that's why I am drawn to it so much. And I just want people to hear the story. And I think one of the dangers I find is that sometimes people outside will have an almost cartoonish view of what China is or just say that, well, China says this or China says that.

And actually, even within the government, there are a lot of different perspectives. They don't always come out but there are. And that's where I find that I want to bring nuance to the story. And so when I'm often asked on my network by others to kind of explain something that China has done, I feel like I can do it. And I will try to do it as best I can with as much nuance as I can.

ED STEINFELD: For me, in the China work I do, I find the narrative complicated because on the one hand things have changed in China, and in many ways not for the better and politically not for the better. On the other hand, I think attitudes outside, especially in the United States, have hardened and to some extent, become racialized in ways that are also not productive.

I wonder how much sense do you get and how much pressure do you get from your global audience in terms of what their expectations are about China or their attitudes? To what extent do you have to respond to those attitudes or accommodate them, or do you try to turn them around a little bit?

EUNICE YOON: It's all-- a little bit of all of that. I think that sometimes I'll be asked questions about China, and people will be very hawkish. I'll get a question from someone who is much more hawkish. And then I'll have to try to really throw it back at them and explain why China is behaving a certain way and what the Chinese perspective would be on the same action.

This came up a lot during when I was reporting on the trade deal. So at some point I was going back and forth with one of my colleagues who's quite hawkish. And then at one point-- and he just said, just take the trade deal. Just take the deal. And I said, OK, let me call Xi Jinping on his mobile phone because I thought, OK, yeah, I'll just have the president on speed dial.

But I'm actually not part of the Chinese government. And I think that's-- there's been a lot of pushback, as you mentioned. It's just like this hardening of-- a more hardline stance towards China has crept up. And I understand it because like I mentioned before, that the diplomacy has become much more harder on the Chinese side.

And sometimes I find it very frustrating when you're looking at what China is doing and you know people inside the government and you know the way that China works. And you want to get this incredible story and this nuance and everything out there, that sometimes China-- the government will say something and you just think, that is not going to go down well overseas. So that's always a challenge when you're reporting but one I think is important.

ED STEINFELD: You know, I know that the most important thing to Chinese citizens is not what happens in the United States. But I am curious, how have-- people you're interacting with in China, how have they absorbed the social unrest that's happened recently in the United States surrounding Black Lives Matter and police violence? How is that story being received and understood in different facets of Chinese society?

EUNICE YOON: Well, on an official level-- and so I mean in the state media or with government officials-- it's been used to portray the US and democracy as very chaotic. So there's been a lot of finger pointing at the social unrest in Black Lives Matter.

And a lot of state media reports about how the US is just a very chaotic a system and also that it adheres to double standards, because the other argument that's being made here is that the US criticizes China all the time for its policing of its people and especially more recently in Hong Kong, where there are Hong Kong protesters who are criticizing Beijing's latest actions. And the US is saying that China is doing the wrong thing but that the US does this themselves by very heavily policing American citizens.

So in terms of the population here, it's been a real mix. You definitely find people who do believe that the US is adhering to double standards when it comes to its police action. I've heard that from a number of people. Just people on the street, like our taxi driver, or a lot of business people who I interact with will say that.

But then there are a lot of other people who I've talked to who do understand that there's a difference. And you could even see that on social media where every once in a while, there's a comment that says, well, the US is policing its people but those policemen have been fired or have been-- there's been some recourse for those people who have been hurt. So the victims are being-- there's some justice for the victims.

And that doesn't happen in China. So you do see that one or two comments or something, which sometimes are very quickly deleted. But you do know that there are people who are out there who are saying that.

The other thing that I thought was interesting is you'll see people not outwardly praising the US system but hinting it because there's been a lot of people who are struck by how strong the local officials-- so either on a mayoral or a governor level-- can push back at the president about Black Lives Matter. For example, when the mayor in DC had said that they were going to write Black Lives Matter in DC heading towards the White House on the street.

That was covered here. And a lot of people on social media were saying, well, look at this. It's really interesting. But they wouldn't say that doesn't happen here in China but the implication is that the US has a much more open system than China when it comes to these issues.

ED STEINFELD: I guess human beings in general aren't always the most self-reflective, whether they're Americans, Europeans, or Chinese. But I wonder, have you sensed at all in China, whether people seeing what's happening in the US, are reflecting at all on ethnic tensions and ethnic problems within China, or is that just too sensitive an area?

EUNICE YOON: I think they probably are, that some people are. But that is not widely discussed here in China. You don't-- in private circles, definitely. People have told me, oh, well, you know, actually the tensions between Blacks and Chinese is really tense. And there's a lot of racism and people who have said to me, oh, well a lot of Chinese are very racist when it comes to Black people.

And so that has come up. But in terms of a wider discussion or decision that, oh, China's going to change its practices or its ways or anything like that, that hasn't really been a discussion here.

ED STEINFELD: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I know we're running short on time. I would love to chat for hours. This has been fascinating. But just one last question. Are there any stories-- I don't want you to reveal professional secrets, but are there any stories that you're just dying to cover that you feel haven't been done yet or that really should be in the mindset of people outside of China that just hasn't been there yet?

EUNICE YOON: That's a hard one because I just-- I feel like I've covered a lot. But the first thing that popped up though is that I actually would like to have a heart to heart discussion with President Xi Jinping or with a top government official. And part of that is because we just haven't heard enough from the government.

And we put in request after request for government level officials, government officials of all levels, and it's just a black box. And so it's not really a story. And of course, if you had the official line, I mean, a lot of times interviews that come out officially look like a readout from Xinhua News Agency.

But I just wish that there might be a time and a place where you could have a really open and honest discussion with a very high level official. And to me, that would even include President Xi Jinping.

ED STEINFELD: I think that's a great answer. And I feel that in the past, in recent decades, while political norms in China aren't necessarily what they are in wherever, in North America or Europe, senior officials have been more willing in the past to engage and engage in less formal setups.

And I mean, I sympathize with you and how hard your job is, but I also sympathize in the hope that in China we'll get back to a time when there is just a little more interaction with people who are making decisions and a little more free form interaction.

EUNICE YOON: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that would be ideal.

ED STEINFELD: Well, Eunice Yoon, thank you so much for speaking with us today, and thank you for all the fantastic journalism that you've been doing and continue to do.

EUNICE YOON: Oh, thank you so much.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by Dan Richards and Babette Thomas. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin. You can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what you hear, leave us a rating and review on iTunes. It really helps others find the show. For more information about this and other shows, go to watson.brown.edu. Thanks for listening and tune in in two weeks for another episode of Trending Globally.

About the Podcast

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Trending Globally: Politics and Policy
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

About your hosts

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Sarah Baldwin '87

Host, Trending Globally
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Dan Richards

Producer and Co-Host, Trending Globally.