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Assignment China

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Member Reviews

This books combines many firsthand accounts of the trials, tribulations, and hardships of journalists from a variety of networks while trying to report on China. At the same time, the reader travels through the turbulent history of China starting from the Civil War up to the present Covid crisis. It is an excellent primary source for any historian or China lover and those who want a look on reporting.
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What does it mean to be a China watcher now that so many are unable to visit the country? How can we call ourselves experts when peering in from a distance? How much do we really understand where our news comes from and how it reaches us? How can we search for truth in a massive country with an intimidating, uncooperative authoritarian political system? As Assignment China shows, those who make the study of China their life’s work have faced these difficulties before, only the technology has changed.

This is a masterful account of American journalism in China, covering from the 1940s through the global pandemic. It gives a backstage look at the reporting of major events such as the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, historic meetings with Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the United States, President Nixon’s 1972 visit, Tiananmen Square 1989, the handover of Hong Kong, and the Sichuan Earthquake. It provides firsthand accounts of working in investigative journalism in more remote regions, tackling issues such as environmental pollution, corruption, health crises, unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang, and the emotional impact of family planning policies. This comprehensive history serves as a highly readable primer for the top Chinese news stories over the past eighty years. Much of this information will not be new to the seasoned China watcher, but the recollections of acclaimed veteran correspondents will be. There are moving stories of camaraderie under tough circumstances and odious tales of boys’ club bullying.

Journalists used connections and craftiness to get the stories that would influence U.S. policy and shape global public opinion. Crucially, it does not ignore the people who helped behind the scenes. This includes the assistants, interpreters, drivers, technicians and fixers who are essential for creating the news people consume. This is a mainly oral history from journalists, but it also includes reflections from American and Chinese officials, writers and academics. These Chinese nationals were often uncredited and working in a sensitive, risky and dangerous position. What is especially interesting is that in many cases, their story did not get the attention it deserved due to a lack of support from their newspapers or a disinterested, distracted American public.

Assignment China begins by asking us to contemplate what sort of people brought the story of China to the American media. What sort of “mental baggage” did they bring with them? Many of the early China experts came from missionary or military backgrounds. For most of the book, the vast majority of eminent journalists interviewed studied at Harvard. The book took an unintended turn for the comical when, somewhere past its halfway point, it introduced yet another graduate of an Asian Studies program at Harvard or Yale.

Studying Chinese language, history and culture is a formidable task, especially to do so at a level where you can speak under considerable pressure and set people at ease. If you’ve studied Chinese, you can sympathise with the late AP journalist Seymour Topping (University of Missouri, which does not get a mention), who described encountering Communist guerrillas: “I could see his fingers on the trigger. He didn’t understand my Chinese.” There are numerous accounts of journalists dodging bullets or being beaten, once to the point of suffering from a permanent injury. These journalists worked under difficult, demanding and dangerous conditions to “provide a voice for the voiceless.”

In the 1940s, the issues with reporting from China were mainly logistical. Communications were severed, underdeveloped and divided by the Kuomintang and the Communists. After this, American journalists had a different challenge. No longer allowed to conduct business in the country and frankly completely unable to blend in to a crowd, they had to “make sense of China without being able to go there and see for themselves.” Many journalists considered China to be their second home and felt a deep sense of separation when they were barred from entering the mainland during the Mao years. These chapters offer insights into the often thankless but essential work of conducting overseas interviews, wading through documents and “how reading through the People’s Daily could drive you crazy because you had to figure where’s the phrase that means something in all this drivel.”

Later journalists would come from more diverse cultural, academic and employment backgrounds. The sections on the reporting of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Henan province by physician Elisabeth Rosenthal were fantastic. After an initial pushback by the Chinese government, this reporting led to individuals receiving the medical treatment they desperately needed. More recently, a growing proportion of the U.S. press corps have Chinese heritage and are able to conduct interviews without drawing as much attention. However, they are less likely to enjoy the protections of being a journalist and a foreigner. As Alice Su of the Los Angeles Times experienced, they were more likely to be cut off from embassy services and abused. She remarked, “I talked to people and got a really good story. On the other hand, I had a taste of being treated as a Chinese person. That was very unpleasant.”

It is admirable that the book explains the difficulties in reporting the truth. Accounts provided by refugees in Hong Kong were often incomplete and the stories were often “biased or tailored to provide what refugees thought interviewers wanted to hear.” This book heavily covers the issue of ‘fake news,’ including the cropped photo that led to the 2008 protests against Western media or the fiction in Mike Daisey’s visit to Foxconn on a retracted piece of This American Life.

This book is a welcome addition to the history of broadcasting and includes many humorous anecdotes. It is fascinating to read about the tensions between the first television journalists who were not experienced China hands and the print journalists, who made China their life’s work. Naturally there were professional rivalries and intense competition. Imagine the excitement of satellites when the country was still using “sewing pins to hold papers together.” Or trying to film Nixon’s visit but you’re being hindered because the minders are upset and the film crew is being called ‘disrespectful’ because you’ve filmed Chairman Mao’s portrait on the Forbidden City in blue, by going through the necessary sequential registering of the primary colours for the broadcast. There was also the matter of trying to get footage with a limited amount of daylight and being held up by conversations over tea or experiencing a unique delaying tactic called “death by banquet.” More recently, journalists shared how difficult it is creating stories with the multimedia heavy internet in mind. Finally, technology is now allowing journalists to report on China from abroad, utilising economic ties, financial paper trails and satellite imagery.

Even for those familiar with Chinese politics and history, the method of jumping from one journalists’ memories to another provides a thrill of suspense. It would have been interesting to explore the experiences of journalists’ accompanying families. Partners and children are limited to a passing mention in what often reads like a spy novel. One exception is the inclusion of interviews with China scholar Leta Hong Fincher, the wife of journalist Mike Forsythe. According to Hong Fincher, Forsythe had his investigative work cut to protect Bloomberg’s business interests and the company subsequently tried to pressure Hong Fincher into signing a non-disclosure agreement. Has this happened to the partners of other journalists? Nevertheless, this may fall outside the scope of the book as it would move focus away from getting the story and towards their personal lives.

Today, China journalists and scholars are facing “increasing harassment and intimidation, often of a physical nature, as well as threats to cancel their visas and expel them.” This book includes numerous situations where journalists had to protect their sources, but the forthcoming challenge may be in how media institutions and universities protect their China experts. Reading journalists’ recollections of China’s modern history, we feel the highs of China’s opening up (“There was this tremendous hopefulness among academics, students of China, ordinary people who were charmed by the Chinese culture and civilisation, who found something loveable in China they would never have found in the Soviet Union.”) and the lows of pessimism and worry over recent developments. Journalists are now deeply concerned that China closing itself off will result in global opinions of China that are “narrow, one-dimensional.” The final chapters grapple with how China’s relations with the U.S. have worsened and examines how the major newspapers capable of doing long form, in-depth investigative journalism have had their journalists expelled. We are in desperate need of those who can contribute to our understanding of China and its people, but without institutional support, how can we cultivate the next generation of China watchers? How can human interest stories be shared when the press is caving to business interests and political pressure?

In Assignment China, political, social and economic changes are covered in detail and provide significant insights into Chinese-American relations and technological developments in journalism. It successfully shows how the background of journalists and the financial situation of their employers shapes how news is collected, understood and transmitted. Readers seeking to enhance their understanding of modern Chinese history and the current trends in media will find this text incredibly helpful. It is highly recommended for China watchers who would like an intimate look at how the biggest Chinese news stories were brought to international attention.

This book was provided by Columbia University Press for review.
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It was an amazing experience. The evolution of journalistic access within the once impenetrable walls of China, the trials and tribulations faced by those tasked with covering this mysterious land, and how over the years- the job and its challenges, moved with the time Right up until the time we are living through. Indeed fascinating. To me, it also gave interesting insight on how the profession has evolved. `A truly enjoyable read for anyone who's interested in world affairs and history. Strongly recommended.
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Mike Chinoy's "Assignment China" is definitely one of the most interesting, informative and well-written non-fiction book I have read in months.
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Assignment China is an in depth and well written look at the lengths that some journalists went to and the hoops that they jumped through to write about and discuss the history and government of China. 

Mike Chinoy uses in depth interviews to bring the story into a truer sense and allows readers to enter the world of China and understand just how different the country was as the years passed. From Mao to the modern day, Chinoy shows readers just how different China was and how these events created the nation that we know today and through it all there were the journalists that chronicled it all . 

Chinoy creates a must read for any history buff or anyone who is invested in journalism or how the world actually runs.
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Assignment China ; An Oral History of American Journalists in the People’s Republic by Mike Chenoy. This book was different than I expected. Perhaps I should have read the complete title. I knew of Mike Chenoy from his days covering inaccessible locations in Asia for CNN. I thought this would be a book of his experiences. It is not but it is still an excellent read. Mr. Chinoy who is now a Senior Fellow of the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California has done extensive oral research into journalists who have covered China from 1940’s up through the Trump era.  The book moves along at a wonderful pace weaving in the comments of all the print and television journalist who cover not only the significant moments in a China’s rise and emergence into the global world but also in many cases the life of people in China. So, there are reports about the students involved with Tiananmen Square, Uighur encampments and the beginnings of the Covid crisis. We sometimes forget the risks and sacrifices made by journalists especially overseas in difficult and sometimes hostile locations. I have been going to China multiple times a year since 1984. This book brought back memories of those “early” days as well as filled in gaps in my understanding. This is certainly not a current history book of China but for anyone interested in China, I believe this is an excellent book to read.
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A really interesting book for China watchers and media geeks
Could have been tailed more effectively - comes to a bit of an abrupt finish but well worth seeing the experiences of these pros come to life...The narrative on Tienamen was powerful
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