BY CHASE STEWART
NANJING, China — International Correspondent Anthony Kuhn’s official base is Beijing, China. From 2010-2013 he was based in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he opened NPR’s first bureau in that country. From there, he covered Southeast Asia, and the gamut of natural and human diversity stretching from Myanmar to Fiji and Vietnam to Tasmania.
Prior to Jakarta, Kuhn spent five years based in Beijing as a NPR foreign correspondent reporting on China and Northeast Asia. In 2004-2005, Kuhn was based in London for NPR. Kuhn began contributing reports to NPR from China in 1996. During that time, he also worked as an accredited freelance reporter with the Los Angeles Times, and as Beijing correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He gravitated to China in the early 1980s, studying first at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute and later at the Johns Hopkins University Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing.
What has changed since you started at National Public Radio (NPR) in Beijing?
In the 1990s, it was different. There was this gap of the Cultural Revolution which meant a lot of journalists did not have the opportunity to come to China and study, which means that a lot of the foreign press corps did not speak or read Chinese and depended on a layer of people to translate and interpret the experience and to act as interface between them and the outer Chinese world. It wasn’t like the 1980s where the foreign journalists were basically confined to the Beijing Hotel, but in the ’90s they were required to live in foreignerapproved housing. That regulation was not lifted until about a decade ago.
The issue was that there wasn’t much news coming out of China. It wasn’t the big powerhouse it is today and it was sort of a news backwater; you didn’t have the situation you have now where you have sports, tech, finance, and diplomacy. So by the 1990s, it was also already open to a great extent. There were thousands of foreigners — business people, students, diplomats — but nothing like now. It was a good opportunity for a young graduate who could speak Chinese and wanted to become a journalist because there was a shortage of foreign journalists. It’s not quite the same situation now. There was a gap in expertise and I was able to fill that.
Has there been any tightening or relaxing of what you can or can’t say?
There’s no pre-publication censorship and there’s also no post-publication censorship. Our website is not blocked, our broadcast is on the internet and we have a podcast, and neither of those are blocked. Authorities do monitor us and discourage Chinese people from speaking to foreign media. Sometimes people end up in jail for speaking to foreign media even though Chinese law says that it’s perfectly legal.
The opinion of foreign journalists is that working conditions are not up to international standards, and things are getting tighter. A lot of restrictions were lifted in the 1990s, but before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, foreign journalists had to get permission to travel or do almost anything. These requirements were lifted, but enforcement has a long way to go. The New York Times and Bloomberg have had the most trouble in the past few years, especially when they talked about the wealth of the Chinese leadership and their families.
Younger people in China better understand media and why countries need news. They see how it might benefit them to speak to media and how their word getting out may help them. They did not grow up in an environment where speaking to foreign media was a serious political mistake and traitorous crime.
As a foreign journalist in an authoritarian country, do you ever not report what you want to for fear that you couldn’t get access again to that area or people?
No. I’m prepared to face the consequences of what I write. I wouldn’t want to be in this business if I couldn’t do it that way. Access is what everybody is after, but I am not ready to self-censor to get that access.
What has changed since Xi Jinping became leader?
I would say there are more gag orders on sources since he came to power. Government, academia, and just in general. In the past, if I wanted to know about public opinion polls, I would go to the public opinion research center at Renmin University, which was very good about talking to us, but then all of a sudden they stopped talking. It was disappointing to say the least. They have to be much more careful, sometimes they say, we’re sorry, but we’re working within the establishment. Ultimately, it’s about their livelihoods.
When you’re on site in China do you get minders?
When we’re in the field, what matters is what happens when you get out there. I prefer not to go with organized groups. Sometimes it’s unavoidable if that’s the only way in, but my preference is to go on my own and see what I can get. Over the years, I’ve had many different types of experiences when I go to some locality in rural China or smaller cities.
A bad example is when I get there and am immediately detained by local authorities. They tend not have a lot of experience with foreign media and they are not sure what to do with me. Their first instinct is to detain me and call the people up the chain of command who also don’t know what to do, so they call all the way up to Beijing and Beijing tells them let me go. It’s a big waste of time, but I cooperate and I tell them that in China we are not required to get government permission to go interview people. And then there was this time when I went to go interview people about the Three Gorges project, got off the boat, and was immediately surrounded by locals. They wanted to tell me about their experiences regarding their reimbursement from the government after getting relocated. Eventually an official made his way through the crowd and introduced himself and said, “After you get done, come to my office and I’ll talk with you.” I get the locals’ story and he gets to tell his story. He has had some experience with foreign media and he gets better coverage and he will get his word out. The rules say we don’t need official permission, but on the ground this rule is not always observed.
Could you comment on Xinjiang and Tibet and getting access to either of these places?
Xinjiang is not off-limits and it’s not necessary to get a special permission to go there, but once you go there, the only story you can do is how difficult it is to work because of the security presence. I was last there covering the riots in 2009 and I spent an incredible amount of time walking around Urumqi trying to find people to talk to. People were afraid to speak, and this was in both Uyghur neighborhoods and Han neighborhoods. The city was pretty starkly divided. There are military checkpoints every fifty miles or so down the road. I had local people speak to me but I had to work really hard to get them.
Now with Tibet, I have been lucky to have had a number of good trips which were not government-organized tours. I was in the Tibetan Autonomous Regions (TAR) in 2003 for the Los Angeles Times and in 2006 for NPR and I was not with a government-organized group. In 2003, I had a Tibetan translator, a driver, and a four-wheel-drive vehicle and off we went into the grasslands to interview nomads. My trips to the TAR were all before the March 14th riots in 2008, and since then it’s been very difficult to get in, either with a government group or individually. Now I don’t know if I can go and do what I did before, but I’m in the process of applying to go again.