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Foreign Correspondence: Henry Chu

August 1, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Tonight our correspondent is Henry Chu who has been Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times for the past three years. His parents were born in China, lived in Taiwan and in 1960 emigrated to the U.S., where he was born. Welcome, Henry.

HENRY CHU: Thanks.

MARGARET WARNER: First, the latest news on the China front today. Another one of these scholars, American scholars, Chinese-born American scholars, who had been detained earlier this year was formally arrested. What is going on with all these arrests?

HENRY CHU: That’s a very good question. I think it’s puzzle add lot of people as to the timing of these arrests because it was right before Beijing was up for the Olympic bid. And it seemed to be a bad image to present to the world at the time. And there are various theories about why now. One is that earlier this year, for example, there was a publication of a book called The Tianamen Papers which purported to show the high-level decision-making that went into the decision to send in tanks in 1989 to crush the protestors. That kind of material seemed to rattle the Beijing regime, which then perhaps directed its security services to close off any possible channels for sensitive material like that to leak out. And Chinese-born and ethnic Chinese scholars often have greater access to those kinds of materials. That’s one theory. Another has it that the security services had black eyes from various lapses over the years, and this was one way to show their mettle. So nobody knows exactly why it’s happening right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Now you’ve also– I’ve read many of your articles, of course– and you’ve also written about just a broader crackdown going on internally.

HENRY CHU: Right. The arrest of scholars certainly are against the context of, as you say, a broader crackdown. Internet cafes are being closed down. The media is being clamped down on. There are some, actually, very good investigative scrappy newspapers in China whose editors have been removed for writing, or letting to be published stories that are a bit more critical of the government than they would like. So that certainly is happening at the moment. And it may be because we’re now entering a period that will run up to an important Communist Party Congress next year, where there will be a shuffle of the top leadership. And so I think they want to run a tight shift right now and this is one way to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, some supporters in the West of granting Beijing’s bid for the Olympics, one of their arguments was, this would be an incentive for the Chinese regime to moderate its treatment of its own citizens, human rights and so on. Do you hear Chinese people you talk to talking about that?

HENRY CHU: I think they don’t necessarily frame it in exactly those terms, but what they are happy about is the fact that China now will be on the international stage, that the scrutiny of China will be even greater than it has been up till now. I’ve forgotten the number but, of course, thousands of journalists deep descended on Sidney for the 2000 Olympics. And this is going to be happening to China. And I think the Chinese are anxious to put on a good face and to show the world that, you know, they’ve arrived and can put on a good show. As to questions of whether this can usher in some era of wholesale political change — I’m a little bit more skeptical of that right now. I don’t think there are signs that that’s the direction that China will go in as short a period as seven years, really.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, how much has China changed, really, in terms of the way people live? For instance, we keep hearing about this new economy, capitalist economy. How capitalistic is it? Is there a much of a middle class?

HENRY CHU: Very good question. The Chinese now are freer, actually, at any time than they have been in the past which, I think, is a fact that is let slip or is not noticed by many people here in the West, especially urban Chinese are able to have the jobs they want. They can move to other parts of China, which was very difficult before. They’re no longer controlled so heavily by their work units, which is sort of the basic unit in China of the government administration. So the fact that now they can wear what they want, speak their minds in private with no problem, generally no problem, is a big change from what it was before. And you mentioned the rise of the middle class. We definitely have in China a growing core of people who shop at Ikea and they drive fast cars; they dress better than I do. They’ve definitely become sort of the arbiters of taste and fashion in China. Now they haven’t really pressed for political change yet, but perhaps will reach a critical mass where eventually that will happen.

MARGARET WARNER: You also wrote that it’s a very much a cash culture. It’s not a consumer culture — as we would know it — based on credit.

HENRY CHU: Right. It is a consumer culture, especially in the urban areas, in that more and more consumer goods are available. All the name brands that you could want are now available on the streets of major Chinese cities. But people do still pay in cash. Even for big ticket items like refrigerators, for example, or cars, people carry in bundles of cash to pay for it because they’re not used to using credit cards or even personal checks. That’s not really something that’s in the Chinese mindset yet, and hasn’t really caught hold. So that’s something that they’ll have to address in order to become a more consumerist culture, and also to develop things like the electronic economy, you know, buying things off the Internet. You can’t do that with a fistful of cash right now.

MARGARET WARNER: At the same time, you’ve written things haven’t changed as much in the countryside, or a lot. And there was one story that I thought was fascinating, if you could just tell us about, about the trafficking in women that’s going on.

HENRY CHU: Yeah, thousands of mostly young women are actually kidnapped and sold every year as brides. And that’s because of China’s one-child policy, which has now produced an overabundance of boys who are now growing into young men and are looking for brides. Right now, I think the figure for 25 to 40-year-olds in China is that there are 25 million more Chinese men, unmarried men, than there are women, which is leading to a social crisis of sorts. And so in many areas, particularly poor farming communities where the peasants can’t afford, or have a nice dowry to offer their brides, they’re having to resort to buying them. And unfortunately, a traffic has sprung up where women are kidnapped from one part of China and spirited away to another and kept in these communities against their will.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, for you, how hard or easy is it for you to do your job as a western journalist there?

HENRY CHU: Hmm. It varies in terms of the topics that you look at. I think China has opened up more and more to western reporters, but there are a lot of restrictions on us as western journalists. For example, any time I want to travel out of Beijing for an article, I’m supposed to secure the permission of the provisional foreign affairs office is what they’re called. And of course, sometimes that can work and there’s room for maneuver, other times it doesn’t and so we have to find our own ways to get information. It’s not the easiest to, especially, investigate more sensitive stories out in the countryside.

MARGARET WARNER: So how do you… Because you have been out in the countryside?

HENRY CHU: I have. There are various ways that I don’t want to get into completely now, but that we find, as I said, some wiggle room in some of the rules. And it is possible to get official permission to go to some of the places. I’ve been to Tibet, for example, on an officially approved reporters’ tour during which I did have time to talk to a lot of the locals unsupervised by the Chinese handlers who were with us. So it is possible to get information. It just requires a little more savvy in working around things than you would normally here.

MARGARET WARNER: And is it a big advantage to be of Chinese descent? Do you speak Chinese? You do.

HENRY CHU: I do. I can get around with no problem. Indeed, being Chinese I think has been a great help. It’s a kind of camouflage in a way. I can blend into the woodwork much more than say you could if you were to come out and try to do a story. I mentioned going to Tibet. That’s one area where being ethnic Chinese was not a help. I think people looked at me a bit more suspiciously and thought perhaps I was a spy for the Chinese government because I’m ethnic Chinese. But for the most part it’s allowed me, I think, to have a certain in and, as I said, blend into the woodwork in places where a Western Caucasian reporter would immediately stand out.

MARGARET WARNER: And have you ever feared that you, just like many ethnic Chinese, have been now targets for the government, that you ever could be? Do you ever worry about that?

HENRY CHU: I have never really thought a danger to myself, and I think partly or mostly because I was born in the U.S. many… All of these scholars, though some of them were U.S. citizens, were born in China. So the government there claims some kind of jurisdiction over them or feels that they have sort of greater control or want to exert greater control on them, whereas I was born in the states and so there’s no official connection between me and China except for my heritage.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you very much. Thanks for coming in.

HENRY CHU: Thanks for having me.