‘The New Yorker’ on China

A ChinaFile Presents Transcript

Following is an edited transcript of a live event hosted at Asia Society New York on December 17, 2015, “ChinaFile Presents: The New Yorker On China.” (The full video appears above.) The evening, introduced by Asia Society President Josette Sheeran, convened the writers Jiayang Fan, Peter Hessler, Evan Osnos, Zha Jianying, and Orville Schell for a look back at their four decades of reporting on China for The New Yorker. Moderating their discussion was David Remnick, the magazine’s editor. —The Editors

Josette Sheeran: Good evening. Well, tonight is a sell out, and it’s so great to have you all here on this rainy and cold, but very festive time in New York, and for a really fabulous evening. This evening, The New Yorker on China, a look back at four decades of reporting on China, is indeed a very special night, and also a convergence of two anniversaries. The New Yorker is celebrating its 90th this year. It was one of the first western media to have access to China after the revolution in 1949, and of our five distinguished guest panelists tonight, and one who’s not a guest, Orville Schell, who I’ll talk about in a moment, they have collectively over a hundred years of observation and writing on China. I think you will all find this very enlightening, and no doubt entertaining. This includes of course our own Orville Schell, who’s Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations Arthur Ross Director, and the founding director of it. We’re so pleased to have Janet Ross here with us tonight. I have learned recently that Orville’s first contribution to The New Yorker was in the ’70s, when The New Yorker produced five consecutive issues on China, almost whole issues on China, solely devoted, quite a thing in the ’70s. I’ve also learned that Orville was so delighted with his first paycheck from The New Yorker that he went and bought a tractor for his ranch in California, and he says this was following Mao’s directive in the Cultural Revolution to head to the countryside, so Orville, very good.

For Asia Society, it’s also an anniversary, our 60th anniversary since our founding by John D. Rockefeller III. As part of that, I’ve been up to the Rockefeller archives in Pocantico and I became very curious about one question: when did the Rockefeller family get interested in Asia and China? That root took me back to 1863 or 64, when the original John D. Rockefeller, who was a very poor man at the time, 25 years old, sent half his monthly salary as a store clerk, which was all of about $24 a month, to China, to help malnourished children. From that you see a family’s interest in and devotion to the development of China, including the founding of the China medical board in 1914, which just celebrated its hundredth anniversary. And then of course John D. Rockefeller III, who following World War II really felt the world needed a center to focus on U.S.-Asia relations. In his mind if there were great troubles in the future, and great opportunity, it would come between the west and the east, and so created Asia Society at the time, so two important landmarks in that.

This event in particular is part of our ChinaFile Presents program. ChinaFile is an online magazine that we started about three years ago. Editors and staff are here, just raise your hands, an amazing team of people. We have done a series of these, so we’ve brought in a generation of New York Times reporters on China, seven correspondents including Seymour Topping, who reported on the Chinese civil war way back when. And also the Wall Street Journal has come in and the Financial Times, and now of course The New Yorker. Usually Orville is the moderator; tonight he will be a panelist talking about his experience and his continued writing with The New Yorker. David, this is all yours. I will just say to everyone, we have an online audience, they can join the conversation with #AsiaSocietyLIVE on twitter and ask questions of the panelists. You’ll be getting an iPad with those questions David, there’s always a lively spate of those from the online community. So welcome everyone, and please welcome David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, and the panelists.

David Remnick: Good evening. I am indeed David Remnick, and I need to caution you that if this were a panel on the Middle East, or Russia, or a few other subjects, I would be swimmingly at home. I’ve been to China twice. So you’ll forgive my naive questions, I’m going to do the best I can, but they’re questions that are editor questions too, the kind of things I want to know from writers out in the field, whether they’re writing from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, or as in the case of the person I’ll introduce first, Chinese-American institutions right down the street, to begin with, and I’m sure she’ll be writing some day even more frequently from China.

Let me introduce our panelists, it could not be a more distinguished group. To my immediate right, Jiayang Fan moved from the United States from Chongqing at the age of eight. She blogs frequently about current events on NewYorker.com about China, and as she conveyed to me, she “has yet to publish any prize winning books on her homeland, unlike her illustrious compatriots up and down the table.” She has, I should say, published an absolutely terrific piece on a bank in Chinatown, that was weirdly the one bank that was prosecuted in the financial catastrophe of 2008.

Evan Osnos, second to my left, lived in China...we’re doing this slightly in age form, let me cast no aspersions up or down… Evan Osnos lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2013, he was a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, and I very, very wisely stole him in 2008. His first piece in China for us was about a gold medalist in boxing, and over the years he’s written about everything from neo-conservatism in China, why young men and women studied English, about a barber who beat the house in Macau, and the triad gangs who tried to extract the money from him in all the ways you could predict, as well as profiles of some influential people including the writer Han Han and earlier this year the president of China. An absolutely remarkable feat of reporting, particularly when you don’t have access to the subject. That’s not an easy thing to do. Last year he published a book called The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, which basically won every award under the sun.

Peter Hessler, to my far right, drinking some Mountain Dew, which they have in China? They have everything in China. Peter first went to live in China with the Peace Corps, which sent him to teach English at a teacher’s college in Fuling, a small city in the southwest, from 1996 to 1998. And that became the subject of his astonishing first book, River Town. In 1999, he moved to Beijing to become a freelancer and in the following year he started writing, thank god, for The New Yorker. Peter wrote a trilogy books about the country and the other two are Oracle Bones and Country Driving. He’s also published a collection of pieces from China, the American west, and other places like Nepal and Japan, called Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West. He now lives with his wife and five year old twins in an equally gentle and calming and under populated place: Cairo.

Jianying Zha was born in Beijing and has lived extensively both in the United States and in China over the years, and writes, I don’t know how she does this, unbelievably fluidly and elegantly in both languages, not that I would know about Chinese, but I am absolutely sure that’s the case. Her books include China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids and Best Sellers are Transforming a Country, and Tide Players: the Movers and Shakers of a Rising China.

And finally, really in this case the grand old man of China writing for The New Yorker. I mean that with love. He is an astonishment, he really is a pioneer in the writing about China. As you know, he served as the Dean of the University of California Berkeley graduate school of Journalism; he is a scholar, a writer, a producer, and a teacher. He has written and edited a raft of books on China, and I want to start with Orville.

You went to China for The New Yorker for the first time in the ’70s. And just to lay a ground work, not that the whole world is about what it’s like for reporters, but since the evening is dedicated to that at least in part, what was it like to arrive in China as a reporter? What were you able to do, what were you not able to do, how did you live, what did you eat, who did you know, who did you not know? What was it like?

Orville Schell: Well it was really literally an otherworldly experience. Because like others who had been trying to make sense out of China, we had to peer in at it from the outside. And it became something of a tremendous lure precisely because of its refusal to accept us, and its sort unavailability and willingness to assimilate. So when I finally got there, it was something of a moment of a Hajj, a trip to the sort of holy land if you will. But I have to say that once there, I was pretty perplexed. Because I spoke Chinese, I had lived with Chinese, I thought I had a rudimentary understanding of how to get along, and yet what one confronted as a foreigner was a kind of profound indigestibility. One was really shut out, nobody felt comfortable having an informal conversation with you even, much less inviting you to their house, much less allowing any kind of unauthorized interaction. I was on a ’youth work brigade’ working on a model agricultural brigade at a commune, and then at an electrical machinery factory in Shanghai. It was very stylized, very ritualized, and I found it very perplexing, leaving me wondering exactly what to make of this place.

David Remnick: So Orville, next week I’m going for the I don’t know how many-th time to Israel and Palestine to do a story. When I arrive at the hotel, my phone already starts ringing. People are banging at the door, not that I’m such a lure, but this is the style. It’s a democracy, it has all kinds of problems, and god knows Palestinians have all kinds of things to say and restrictions thereof, but it is easy. I have to admit, it is very easy. Russia is easy. If you can’t find a story there, you should go do something else. How did you...you’re on a work brigade, so in other words you’re not there to write about politics, you’re there to do what? How are you beginning to see a story, to write about what? The New Yorker expects what? I can’t even imagine this.

Orville Schell: Well I remember sitting in my room, in the Beijing hotel, which had just gone up, it was the only high rise building in all of Beijing. And any of you that have been there recently will know that it’s quite a step since then. But looking at the telephone and thinking, you know, there’s literally nobody to call. And the phone was not going to ring. So I think in those days you pretty much had to resign yourself that the story was not to find out things through investigative reporting, through interviews. The story was what China wanted to present itself as, what it wanted you to see, what its sort of stagecraft was all about.



‘New Yorker’ Writers Reflect on ‘Extreme’ Reporting About China

Eric Fish from Asia Blog
While international reporting on China has improved by leaps and bounds since foreign journalists first started trickling into the country in the 1970s, major challenges remain in giving readers back home a balanced image. That was the message from...

David Remnick: When you look back at what you were writing in the ’70s, now that you know and you’ve been there a million times, it’s much more penetrable to you, there’s a giant literature that you’ve no doubt availed yourself of by Chinese writers, and Western writers, and the rest. What did you get right, what was off?

Orville Schell: You know, one thing I have to say: being there while Mao was still alive and the cultural revolution was still going, there was not one single scintilla of evidence that this place would ever change. So you looked at it, and you could not see easily the fracture points. You could not see the contradictions, you just saw what you were enabled to see. And I think it was very difficult...the part that was hard to get right was, what where the internal forces that would ultimately drive this country in the way in which it would go? I think it was a profound lesson for me, because what it suggested was that China does often undergo tectonic changes, almost none of which are predictable or visible. 

David Remnick: Jianying, you grew up there obviously. Tell us a little bit about how you first decided to write about this place that you know from a very different angle of vision than Orville Schell, who grew up in New York and had a markedly different childhood than yours.

Zha Jianying: Okay. Actually, as Orville was telling his story about his first encounter with China, I was reminiscing about my first encounter with America. A decade later, in the early 1980s, I came to the States as a student, and I ended up in, of all places, South Carolina, in Columbia. It was a state capitol, but when I arrived, this was nothing like I expected. It was like, out in the boonies, some kind of cowpat.

David Remnick: Were you on a work brigade?


Zha Jianying: I was just a student, on scholarship. I was actually shown around campus by the chairman of the English department, which I was a graduate student in. Testifying, this is really someone from red China, and the first American friend I made was actually apologizing to me, like, we really don’t know anything about China. “Do you have electricity?” And then he actually asked me things like “Is your delicacy something like grasshopper dipped in chocolate sauce?” That was all he could think of. Then, there’s really very little contact between the two countries. So when my classmates in Beijing called me a year later, because you really didn’t have any money to call, so my classmates in China would be saying things like “Huh, so you’re in the Guizhou of America, aren’t you?” You know where Guizhou is, this very poor out of the way area. So we have this mutual kind of...I think, ignorance, or maybe suspicion, or misconception of each other.

David Remnick: If I can interrupt, so when you’re picking up the New York Times in the ’80s, and maybe The New Yorker, or whatever, and you’re reading about China, in English, did it resemble reality to you in any way? Was it interesting? Or was it like reading about the other side of the moon?

Zha Jianying: I think actually in the ’80s, when I was a student, this was before my New Yorker reading days. I knew about it…

David Remnick:We can forgive that. It’s ok. Let’s try the New York Times.


Zha Jianying: Both I became addicted to later. After I went back to China and came back again, I think The New Yorker was such an icon in China. But it was literally a myth. So it was in fact quite cool when I first published my piece in The New Yorker, because people really thought this was the place that you could have both good writing and in-depth, quirky takes on China. So it’s viewed as a writer’s magazine, and the fact that I decided to write in English, of course that was a long story, had something to do with returning to the states again after Tiananmen. That was actually one of the first subjects of my first book. China Pop was about the transition after Tiananmen. So I think that was a confusing period, when my generation of Chinese sort of had this very romantic idea about the states. Not just about the wealth, but as an icon of free speech and all of that.

David Remnick: And did we disappoint you in some way? I’m not joking.

Zha Jianying: Actually, this is a kind of sobering subject now. Because I think since then, the vision has changed a lot, on both sides. I was watching the republican debate the other day [laughter] and I saw China bashing.


Evan Osnos: It was inevitable.


David Remnick: Can I just say I’m sorry? I begin every day, I wake up and I turn to my wife, and I just say, “I apologize.” And for the republican debate, I apologize.


Zha Jianying: Yeah. And I think that it really hasn’t come out of nowhere, because if you look at the U.S. reporting of the last fifteen years or decade, there’s basically two kinds of China bashing going on regularly. One line is this image of China as this ominous giant that’s been playing unfairly with us and is eating our lunch, stealing our jobs, and it’s going to crush us, right? The other line is this paper tiger, that’s on the verge of imminent collapse. And you have people like Gordon Chang, and Jim Chanos, and all those people, always betting short on China. But I think actually the reality is somewhere in between, and that’s where most Chinese I know sit. Because people are really proud of Chinese achievement, but also very worried, but unfortunately, I think America now is also worried. So looking at China from outside, most Americans tend to see strength. And they see this unstoppable march. In fact, there’s a recent Pew survey that says more than 50 percent of Americans see China, not America, as the number one superpower. That’s amazing. I think when Chinese hear about this, they’re completely taken aback. There’s actually a joke in Beijing that goes something like, “oh this is a western conspiracy. They’re trying to kill us by overpraise.” Because you get praised to the skies, and you lose your head, and you act stupidly, and you fall. But in fact, most Chinese just think maybe that’s because Americans just don’t like us and they’re trying to push us back and contain us. But I think the danger is there is this gap of perceptions, that’s kind of mutually reinforcing. So in fact, that’s where some of The New Yorker’s more balanced and subtle journalism of China does a lot of good, like what Peter and Evan and Orville do.

David Remnick: Now, Peter, you came to China in not the usual way. You weren’t sent by a bureau, you came here as a peace corps volunteer. You were very much interested in writing at Princeton, we share something in that we’re both students of John McPhee, and I think you were interested in writing from the get go. But you didn’t land in Beijing, you didn’t land in Shanghai, you started from a very different place. I’d love to know what restrictions if any you felt when you got there, it clearly couldn’t have felt in Orville’s way and you spoke good Chinese. But did it seem impenetrable to you, or had times so changed, that you could really dig in in a human way that was very difficult fifteen, twenty years before?

Peter Hessler: Because I arrived in the Peace Corps, I didn’t see myself as a writer actually. I did have an interest in writing, in college I had majored in fiction, and actually when I showed up in the Peace Corps, I was still thinking more of becoming a fiction writer. I remember my first semester there I was writing a short story; it wasn’t even about China at all. But I was trying to engage with the place—it felt...it didn’t feel impenetrable, it just felt difficult. The main difficulty was language, I showed up with no Chinese, so that was the real difficulty.

David Remnick: None, you had none.

Peter Hessler: No, none of us did. None of us in the Peace Corps had any.

David Remnick: I hear it’s an easy language.


Peter Hessler: It’s easy if you’re in a town of a couple hundred thousand and there’s only one other foreigner. You know, that was really all you had to do. There was no Internet, we didn’t have cellphones, and we couldn’t travel.

David Remnick: So in other words, that time that wasn’t spent teaching or working for the Peace Corps, you were studying language as much as possible.

Peter Hessler: I studied like crazy, because life was miserable otherwise. I mean, it was really hard. People would laugh at you, you’re a freak if you walked around, there’d be a crowd of 20 watching you, which is entertaining for a little while, but it becomes really wearing. And so it was really hard, especially the first six months. So I wasn’t really thinking of myself as a writer, I was a teacher. And one of the first things I actually saw was the way that the U.S. looked to my students. My students were all from rural Sichuan, they were from pretty poor backgrounds, but they were good students. It was pretty hard to get into a college in those days. And we had these textbooks, there was a textbook we were supposed to teach from that was like “the culture of America.” It was the most ridiculous thing because they’d have like a section on college life in America and they’d have all these things like “there were 15 students raped at University of South Carolina,” and then “students were robbed at University of Southern California,” just all over the place these random facts. And then a big section on homosexuality, and how capitalism causes homosexuality. They didn’t get to the point that’s like “well, gay people actually have a lot of money” because then my students would have started to think about that. [laughter] But anyway it was really hard to teach from this stuff. And then meanwhile people in town would be like, a farmer would say “I heard that in America they use airplanes to farm, to sow the seeds.”

David Remnick: Like in North by Northwest, they do.

Peter Hessler: They do. I mean, somewhat, you know. So a lot of these were actually true things. I remember I had a student, my students were from really rural, remote areas, and they all had crazy English names, like a boy named Daisy, another kid named North, who turned out to be the prototype for Kanye West’s kid but 20 years early. But some kid asked me a question, he’s like “I heard that the Washington Bullets had to change their name because of all the gun violence in America.” And that’s a true fact, right? But why do you know that? Your name is Daisy, but you know this thing about the Washington Bullets, which a lot of people probably don’t even know in this room. So it was frustrating, you know. Because it was kind of personal, because you’re the representative of this place. I was with the Peace Corps, of course. But also just being the only foreigner. So when it did come time to writing about China, I felt very conscious of not doing the same thing in the opposite direction. I just felt like people need some context. That’s what my students needed, was not the most extreme stories. That’s what that book had done, it took headlines basically.

David Remnick: So what’s bad writing about China? What are you fighting against? I think you’re trying to say…

Peter Hessler: How much time do we have?


David Remnick: We have plenty of time, it’s raining and cold outside.

Peter Hessler: I think that it’s the extremes, it’s the same thing as the bad writing about America. Either America is a place of constant crime or a place where everybody’s rich, and it’s like “well this is not it.” You should know something in the middle.

David Remnick: And is that influenced by starting to write not from Beijing or Shanghai but Fuling?

Peter Hessler: I think it’s the way you write about your local community. I think actually, foreign coverage follows the same patterns as local coverage basically. If you’re living in New York, you can’t just write about average life in New York City like for the New York Times. I mean you can do some, but that’s not really what you’re supposed to do. Because the people who read your paper, who live here, they know what that’s like to some degree. You do have to find the extremes, and the things that are messed up, that have to be fixed. It’s an appropriate point of coverage. I think the problem is, that tradition is very deeply entrenched in American journalism, and then foreign correspondents write on another country and they do the same kind of thing. So they find the most extreme cases in China of things that need to be fixed or that are egregious, but if there’s no context, I think it just kind of confuses Americans, and it doesn’t actually end up fixing the problem anyways. I think the foreign reporter has to serve a very different function than a domestic reporter. And I think not everybody would agree with me, and I was criticized a fair amount.

David Remnick: So when you’re reading stuff that comes out of bureaus by intelligent people who speak Chinese for the most part, what are your frustrations with that?

Peter Hessler: I guess that often it seems overly political. Often looking more at a social frame of reference helps, trying to give some sense of how people interact. Sometimes rather than just picking one issue and one point in time, you need to show the trajectory of things, which is really important.

David Remnick: We should be honest; this is a conversation that Peter and I have had for years. And because I tend to come at things maybe more politically, you come at things more socially, and it’s a conversation we have. And the tradition at The New Yorker is that the writer wins. I’m still alive, but the writer does win, the idea is that you’re there and I’m not. It’s meant to be a writer’s magazine, that deeply influences what we do. Although there are times when in a highly politicized moment, as when during Arab Spring, during the Egyptian counter-revolution, you wrote politically. But it’s not your go-to thing, I think it’s fair to say that you would usually be more comfortable writing about the social. Now, Evan, who comes from a newspaper background, might see this fifteen degrees differently. I mean, writers are different, they come at things differently. Give me a sense, when you land in China, again: what the restrictions are, what your approach is, and the rest.

Evan Osnos: Well I was thinking as Pete was describing the experience of going to Fuling, how different that is than being the local Fuling newspaper. I sort of had that experience in the United States before, because I was a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune who was based in New York. I was sent to New York as a New York correspondent. So for a couple of years I wrote stories about “they are a proud people. They have taken me in as one of their own. The food is exquisite.” [laughter] And that actually was a useful function, because in some ways that was what you’re trying to do as a correspondent in a place. But there is that danger of essentializing people to sort of one element, and that’s true whether you’re writing about New York or you’re writing about China. I should say I was informed. By the time I set foot in China, I had been shaped as a writer by Orville, by Pete, in fact I’d read Zha Jianying’s book China Pop, all this stuff was in the ether. So by the time I got there, there was a literature of China that just simply didn’t exist. There was a process, they had to create a literature, and I was the beneficiary of that. By the time I got there, the idea of the deprivation for instance that Orville was dealing with, just on a lifestyle basis, it was a little different in 2005. I think I remember once the restaurant ran out of pate. It was brief, but it was very unpleasant, very unpleasant. [laughter] And in fact, the idea that China wasn’t changing, that it was sclerotic, everything had flipped on its head. In fact, the default position was that China was constantly changing, and moving in this inexorable direction towards—we didn’t know what. But we had this outline in our minds that it was probably going to be similar-ish to something that we would recognize in the West. We would always couch that; we’d say China was going to be China.

David Remnick: And was that a mistake?

Evan Osnos: It was a mistake. And when I think back to that period, one of the things that I think we, and certainly that I came to assume about China, was that it would move down this path where every year it would get a little bit more open, and there would be moments where it would step back, but it would ultimately keep moving in that direction. And I think fundamentally, this is sort of a slightly different conversation, but I think fundamentally that’s probably still true, but I think we need to talk more seriously these days, and in our writing have to acknowledge what’s going on in the moment, that China really has stepped back.

David Remnick: Isn’t that a historical moment in time? In other words, the ’90s, the collapse of communism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the moment in 1989 in China, gave the United States the sense that everything was moving politically, socially, in terms of pop culture, the tropism was towards some universal Americanism with Chinese characteristics, or Latin American characteristics, or whatever? It was a colossal delusion.

Evan Osnos: Yeah, and Orville has written the text on this subject. That was a failure of, in some sense, our expectation of China.

Orville Schell: But I mean I think, you know, we are very Western, and we look at China through our Western eyes, our really Hegelian eyes. That history is moving in an ineluctable direction towards openness and freedom. And I think what’s so interesting about China now is as Evan suggested, maybe that’s at least for the moment called into question. Maybe there’s a different direction that they want to move in a different goal.

David Remnick: Jiayang, you left China when you were very young, but you’ve also lived both inside, you’re a New Yorker, but you read Chinese, you read Chinese newspapers, you’ve been involved, in fact you’ve been a researcher and fact checker for both of these guys up here, and have then started writing for us, and I would imagine there will become a time when you might write from China. So how do you, seeing this now in 2015 and moving forward, where do you think should be the next step, how do you look at it in a future oriented way? What’s missing, too?

Jiayang Fan: I think the question that you posed earlier maybe to Jianying about what it feels like to read Western reporting as a native Chinese was an interesting one. For me, I remember when I was able to read the New York Times, when I read reports on China, it felt like seeing an x-ray of China. And what I mean by that is: the bones all seemed to be in the right place, but what I had in my head with the flesh and the veins, all of that seemed...it seemed all very accurate, I felt like Western reporters must have done a very conscientious job, this was in the mid-90’s, but that sense of intimacy that I felt to the country, and in myself I think, the warring allegiances of...keep in mind, I spent first and second grade in China, and was exceptionally slow as an English learner. I still felt very much, well nobody could truly...with a child’s sense of stubbornness, nobody could understand China the way I do. And I spent the past two decades trying to reconcile that very visceral sense of loyalty to this country, and that feeling that I get it in a way that no one else does, maybe the way that a child feels about her mother.

David Remnick: Even though you’re here. No, I think it’s a profound difficulty that any immigrant has, no?

Jiayang Fan: Yes. Even though I’m here. I found myself in the strange position of oftentimes defending China to Western friends, and then defending Western perceptions of China to my Chinese friends. And feeling like I’m somehow in everybody’s bad books, but that somehow I’m trying to find…

David Remnick: That you’re implicated somehow. Do you feel the same way?

Zha Jianying: That’s been the story of my life. Yeah. And now I’m getting to be my daughter’s story. But anyway.

David Remnick: So how does that influence your writing, and in a way that Evan and Orville and Peter probably cannot?

Zha Jianying: Yeah. I think that they could be very fruitful kind of tensions that you wrestle with, these pains. I used to describe my trips to Beijing, which is my hometown, after I’ve been in the states for some years, as that Beijing seemed to become like a skin rash for me. Because every time I return, I feel this horrible itch to scratch, because everything is irritating. And I get into these wild mood swings, and I would pick a fight with my parents, my friends, and all this. They all seem to don’t understand America. And I would very consciously not slip into any English phrase, because then I would be charged as a sellout or they call it “Jiayang guize,” fake foreign devils. So I have that dual kind of loyalty issue all the time. But I think ultimately, that kind of insider/outsider position and tension also have certain great advantages for writing, because you do have that kind of intimacy with the home scene, and because you’re outside you’ve also gained some distance to have certain objectivity, you’re removed. I used to say that in order to get over this skin rash, I need to run away and come back to America and grow some new skin, so I can actually look at what I’m writing in China with a more clear eye.

David Remnick: Let’s talk about this subject of being wrong, the anxiety of being wrong, either as a diplomat or as a journalist. Edgar Snow famously during the famine that killed up to 30 million people said that “I saw no starving people in China.” I was recently on a reporting trip to the Middle East and talking to an American diplomat who had been an ambassador in all the key places during the Arab Spring, and said we knew about disaffection and unemployment, but we didn’t see this coming in any way. The CIA, Daniel Patrick Moynihan thought the CIA should have been closed for not being able to see the collapse of the Soviet Union coming. And this diplomat was saying, “one of the problems since 9/11 is that we are hunkered down, we are restricted in certain ways, that may be unique to the Middle East and South Asia, but also there’s the Netflix phenomenon, we bring our Western culture with us and we have our comforts.” This would not have been the life of Harrison Salisbury, maybe, or the Chinese equivalent. Some people don’t get out, we make mistakes about it. What are we missing now? If you had to guess, when we’re thinking about China, all of you, what are we missing and why? What should be our anxiety about knowledge and China now? Orville, you want to take a crack?

Orville Schell: Boy. You know, I think we miss so many things. The longer I try to parse through China, the more I think the history makes an enormous difference, and the whole Chinese historical experience keeps acting out its deportment. And I think we often, when we understand it, it’s a rather simple minded version of history. And actually, I think China too doesn’t do such a great job at understanding its own history because they’re actually quite frightened of history.

David Remnick: Of Chinese history in particular.

Orville Schell: Yes, they’re frightened of their own history. Because it’s pretty devastating, and there are lots of no fly zones. But be that as it may, it keeps expressing itself.

David Remnick: What are the no fly zones besides the obvious 1989?

Orville Schell: Oh, I mean you mentioned the famine where 30 million people died. I mean the whole Chinese Communist Party history is so fraught with problems and brutality and failures that to actually do an honest assessment of it would be devastating. But that’s all part of what is in the being of Chinese and I think that it’s very difficult for an American or a foreigner to have anything more than a very cursory understanding of that.

David Remnick: Pete?

Peter Hessler: What are we missing? I think the reporting is still too focused on Beijing and Shanghai, I think we miss a lot from the interior. It’s geographically hard for reporters to spend a lot of time there.

David Remnick: Why?

Peter Hessler: Well you know, because they all live in Beijing and Shanghai, they have to.

David Remnick: No I understand that they live in Beijing and Shanghai, but it’s not that hard to get around is it?

Peter Hessler: No, no it isn’t. But it makes life harder if you’re going to these places. I did a project that became part of my last book Country Driving. I chose a place in Zhejiang province, a factory town and I went there over a period of two years. I later looked at it and it was more than 100 days on the ground there. And it’s hard to find that kind of time, basically. I could do that because I was doing a story for National Geographic, I was doing a piece for you guys on it, and I was working on my book. So that kind of justified this amount of time, but a newspaper person can’t do that. I think also, for me personally, the thing that I liked to do was to find a place instead of necessarily an issue or an event or even a person. Because I think sometimes...I think a lot about methodology, my father is a sociologist and I think a lot about methodology, which I think journalism is a little weak on. It’s a product-oriented field, it’s not process oriented to be honest. You don’t footnote, you don’t tell how you got started. And I think you have to be deliberate sometimes in your research structure and your decisions. If you’re covering an event, then of course that’s what you’re going to do, and sometimes an event can kind of muddy the waters in a place.

David Remnick: For example?

Peter Hessler: Well in a lot of places it muddies the waters in an authoritarian country because then police are on alert. If something’s happened in this place you can’t hang out there for 100 days, right? And that town I went to, I never got hassled by the police. I do the same thing in Egypt. I’ve been going to a place in upper Egypt for more than two and a half years now, and it’s partly I can do that because nothing’s been going on. But there are lots of things going on, you notice them, right?

David Remnick: But journalists are addicts of things going on.

Peter Hessler: Yeah. But I think sometimes you just go to a place that’s maybe representative, and just statistically speaking, the odds are that it is unless you’ve chosen something extreme. And then see. Because there are things going. There’s always stuff going on. Like the factory town that I went to, I witnessed personally the tax official shaking down entrepreneurs, I was in the room while they’re doing this, watching how they negotiate this bribe. That’s an interesting event. I saw workers applying for jobs, I saw how they use their children to get positions for the whole family, there’s lots of stuff you can witness.

David Remnick: In my extensive research at your dinner table in Beijing, it seemed that the conversation always gets down to the push and pull of the following: the fact that the Beijing government and the entire power structure has willy nilly, at tremendous cost to the environment and much else, lifted 500 million people out of poverty, versus all the ugly features of an authoritarian state. It seemed to me constant discussion, are we doing too much of one, are we not doing enough of the other, etc. etc. I assume this is a dynamic that goes on all the time. Is there such a thing as a happy medium? How do you do this, how do you judge your own performance in terms of what you’re revealing and how you’re balancing the picture of what’s happening, when it’s so vast, so complicated, so populous, and possibly some things might even be hidden from you?

Evan Osnos: I mean the hardest problem of writing about China is figuring out what are the proportions of the portrait. Because any portrait has a certain composition of light and dark in China. And depending on where you focus your attention, you can find a story that is uplifting and is a sign of this extraordinary human project of what has occurred over the course of the last 40 years of transforming the country and its human development. Or you can shift your attention 20 degrees and get a completely different story, one that is really a concern about the political character of the place and the effect on individual people. And the struggle, and this will ring hollow to people who write at a thousand words and have done it at a newspaper, but when you’re trying to squeeze it into ten thousand words and your editors are telling you they’ve got to trim a hundred words, you’re like “well now what’s even the point of doing it? It’s now down to 9,900 and I can’t convey the complexity.” [laughter] It’s a constant struggle because you’re trying to tweak the tolerances of this piece to get that portrait right. I’ll give you one example of a way in which I think we may miss something these days. We already sense that we’re moving in the American narrative of China and certainly in the political narrative that China is becoming more nationalistic, perhaps. You know, you read about the idea that the government is certainly cultivating that spirit, and every couple of years with some regularity there’ll be a protest where people come into the streets and they’ll say either “down with Japan” or whatever it is, “down with the United States,” or something like that, usually not quite that harsh. And the truth is, as you discover, and this is one of the things you can do in a magazine piece, this is one of the first stories I did at The New Yorker, was to go and find those guys, some of the people who were the sort of principal ideologists of this nationalist moment, and hang out with them. And one of the things you discover is that they’re incredibly happy that you called, actually. They really do want to chat; in some ways that’s one of the things they want most of all. I’ve spent a lot of time with these guys over the course of the next few years, and what you discovered was: very often they could hold two thoughts in their head at the same time, even if we were having trouble doing the same thing about China. So they could on the one hand be absolutely enraged about a certain feature of American policy, and yet at the same time have genuine respect for elements of American life. These two things could coexist. One of the guys, Tangjie, who I wrote about in that piece, six months later when we were back in touch, I said “so what’s going on?” and he said “well, I’m in Germany.” And he had been really tough on the west, but he was now studying in Germany and was going back to China, starting a company, and so on. And so I think as we anticipate over the course of the next few years, there will be this underlying momentum in the American political culture to try to create China as an enemy. When you scratch, you discover...you don’t even have to scratch very far beneath the surface, you’ll find that the individual participants, the Chinese people who are swept up in this, have much more interesting and complicated feelings than you will see when you flip on a CNN report.

David Remnick: Jianying?

Zha Jianying: Yeah. I was thinking as people were doing a form of self-criticism just now that somehow America missed out all these things. A lot of Chinese feel that way, that we missed out on the direction where China is going, and there’s a lot of people who are shocked in China by the certain sort of regressive moves of the moment in the political sphere for example. But I think we ought to be careful not to fall back to this kind of old binary of “East and West, China is yin and we’re yang, so we’re two totally different animals, let’s not even touch it.” And you’re talking about rising nationalism in China but I think that’s actually a mirror image of American rising nationalism. It’s not that different when you boil it down.

David Remnick: When you say rising nationalism in America, that’s derived from the portrait derived from the Republican debate the other day? [laughter] No, I mean it.

Evan Osnos: You’re not gonna say the name…

Zha Jianying: Okay, let me just say this again. I was watching…

David Remnick: Here’s where I slightly disagree, or at least put a little pressure on the point. Nationalism is firmly in power in China. And unless you think Barack Obama is a hyper nationalist, which you probably don’t…

Zha Jianying: No, he’s not. He’s the person to blame for not being nationalistic enough, for being too weak for example, for being too soft on Muslims and all this. Let’s bring back the republican debate. I was a little troubled by, for example, Senator Rand Paul, the other day, Tuesday, was saying something like “Spreading democracy is a utopian project.” That is troubling to me because while I think there is a sobering lesson that America is trying to learn in the Middle East, China is a very different story. It would be overkill to say...no one, first of all, ever talked about regime change in China. It’s just unthinkable. But I think it’s very important for the Americans to continue to see China as having lots of overlapping and similar aspirations, both economically and politically. And it’s important to keep on paying attention and supporting those few individuals who are maybe marginalized, I mean they have been marginalized systematically. But they are still enjoying sympathy and support, sometimes silent, sometimes not so silent, in China.

David Remnick: This is a constant argument, that doesn’t just apply to China. Certainly it applied to the Soviet Union. That somehow the dissidents got too much attention, that if you did a readout of numbers of stories by the New York Times, by somebody...there’s way too much on Ai Weiwei, name your Chinese dissident, or Sakharov, or whoever it was in Tibet. How do you two feel about this? Jiayang go ahead.

Jiayang Fan: I definitely see Pete’s point earlier about focusing on a place and perhaps social issues that exist a little bit outside of the political hotspot. I think that a lot of times, there’s still the sense that China is a bit of an unknown quantity, so fear mongering becomes very easy. And when China exists as the other, then anything that happens, any phenomenon that happens in China becomes “well that’s so Chinese.” Whether it’s nationalists, or whether there’s a group of really rich Chinese, [it’s saying] ’that’s so specifically Chinese,’ rather than contextualizing it in social and economic terms, and seeing that this is just an outgrowth that has cultural elements, but is not unique. Those impulses are universal.

David Remnick: Pete, how do you feel about the dissident problem as it were in reporting?

Peter Hessler: I guess I was somebody who didn’t write about high profile dissidents, but when I talked about looking at specific places, there were basically three places over the course of my 11 years there that I focused on for long periods of time. One was Fuling when I was in the college, one was Sancha, a small village outside of Beijing, and the other was the factory town that I mentioned. They’re fairly different places geographically and also just in the nature of what they were doing. I did see the same dynamic in each place, which was that a lot of the talented people were recruited into the party, certainly that was the case with my students; a lot of the best students became party members. I had this idea before I went there that the smartest kids are going to be dissidents, because I’d read the 1989 stuff and so on. But the best kid, Mo’ Money, who was the class monitor, really sharp kid, he was a party member. And then there was also a group of smart kids who didn’t want to do that, and they just kind of went off in a different direction, they had other outlets. And the people who, in all of these communities actually, who ended up actively resisting, were the ones who kind of ran out of options or connections. And this was a very striking pattern because I saw it in all three places. One was in ’96-98, another was the village over a seven year period, another was in the factory town. And so it’s not necessarily an uplifting story, but I had to feel like “this makes sense to me, why this place has not been changing.” Because the talent is either recruited, and co-opted, or it’s finding other outlets, and the people that are most likely to resist are often the ones who are somewhat desperate. I remember a really sad scene when I was reporting in the factory town, they were building a dam and there were people who were unhappy about the dam, and they were showing me all these documents, and they were making their case in a very clumsy way. And then at some point they were like “wait a minute, you write for a foreign magazine!” And I was like “yeah, I gave you my card, I showed you.” And they’re like “oh no, this is mai guo, we’re selling the country out, we can’t do this.” And they just totally flipped out, and I ended up having to tear my pages out of the notebook and give it to them. You know, I felt bad; these people already have enough to worry about. If you don’t want me to write this, I’m not going to write it. But it was sad, how are they going to possibly deal with this problem, how are they going to get any traction against the party when they can’t even communicate with me, a sympathetic journalist? How are they going to work this through with the party? And then the only guy of this group who became very competent, he impressed when he said “who do you write for, let me see your journalist’s license.” At the end of the conversation I said “what do you do here?” and he said, “oh, I also sell tiles.” He had hedged his bets; he was selling building materials for the new town that they were building because of the dam resettlement. You saw this kind of thing a lot.

David Remnick: Orville, one of the dynamics in journalism and in foreign correspondents, is how your stuff is played back into the country where you are. In the ’80s, the way things got played back into communist countries was through Radio Liberty and that kind of thing. When you started going to China and started publishing in The New Yorker, did you have any resonance whatsoever, sitting in China, that what you published thousands of miles away somehow got back to China at all? And how did that affect your life as a writer?

Orville Schell: Well, in the ’70s, no. But after the Cultural Revolution ended, Mao died, and Deng Xiaoping came back into power, everything changed. And I think you have to really look at China as this almost play, with different acts. When you get a very different persona expressing itself. And it isn’t as if China actually changes, it’s just that a different aspect comes to the fore. And the 1980s were an incredible period of openness. People were publishing translations of philosophy, they were looking at new kinds of political structures, laws that would enthrone journalists as having legal rights, it was incredible. And at that point, what one wrote came back with a vengeance.

David Remnick: In what form?

Orville Schell: Well, they had a couple of publications which translated things, so Chinese could read them in Chinese language.

Zha Jianying: Actually, Heidegger was a best seller, believe it or not.

David Remnick: What was?

Zha Jianying: Heidegger, Nietzsche, all these high Western philosophers translated to Chinese.

David Remnick: All of it, or the early funny stuff only?


David Remnick: That’s amazing. Heidegger was a best seller. Wow.

Orville Schell: It was an incredible period. But sadly, it ended in 1989. And China started to become a little more open for a while, and then...well, it’s a long, complicated story. But you have to really look at the decade, look at the period, to know what the interaction is with the foreign press, whether there’s an interest in it, but I think it’s important to say that what we see now in China is not the whole story. It’s a period. There is a deeply evolved tradition in Chinese political philosophy, thinking, activism, that is very democratic. We shouldn’t assume that just because the Party now doesn’t want to hear about it, that that is erased. It’s just expressing a different side.

David Remnick: And how are those currents expressed, revealed, read about, and exchanged in contemporary life?

Orville Schell: Well I think it depends again on the period. Now, you hear it in private conversations. You won’t see it so much in public media, certainly not on television; those things are quite well controlled. And there’s a very utilitarian streak I think in Chinese culture and society. People tend to go where they’re not going to get in trouble. So the terms of the game are set, and it sort of determines where, as I think Pete, you said, most people are going to go. The tile business, good. If going into politics and running for office is going to get you into trouble, no. I mean it’s true in every country, but I think China has a particular version of it.

David Remnick: Evan, that’s your experience?

Evan Osnos: Well, one of the things that I think was specific about this period which Orville was describing most recently too, is that it is not as if there were these bright lines between who was political and who was not. There used to be, I think, clearer distinctions. If you made the choice to become political, as Jianying’s brother did and wrote brilliantly, you wrote brilliantly about it in The New Yorker, one of my favorite pieces ever, was about his experience as a dissident. In the period in which I was living there beginning in 2005, it was this very interesting time when people were self-politicizing because the technology was changing. All of a sudden, you could go online, and you could have a voice, you could say something. And you could identify and you could find people who agreed with you or disagreed with you, you could fight bitterly with them, you could choose your tribe, you could choose your values and express them. There was a time when we used to assume that most people had been so poor, so recently, that they didn’t care about politics. Because it was true, actually. For a lot of people, it had been so bitterly hard that the idea of concerning yourselves with abstract notions of values was a distraction people couldn’t afford. There was a guy who I wrote about, actually the last blog post that I wrote from China before coming home was about a street sweeper on the street where we lived, who when I met him I thought I understood the contours of his life. He’s a guy who wears an orange suit, and has a straw hat on. His name’s Qi Xiangfu, and then I started talking to him and he said, “People here think I have no culture, they think I have no education. And what they don’t know is that I am a poet, and in fact I moderate an online salon about contemporary Chinese poetry.” And I thought he was completely bonkers.

David Remnick: And there he was online.

Evan Osnos: And there he was. In fact, he was a celebrity online. He was a figure with authority, and he had an identity that was completely detached from what would be visible to you if you just showed up and looked at him. And in that way, this period was this extraordinary time in which people were developing additional lives, and that was kind of thrilling to describe.

David Remnick: What’s it like for you to be sitting here in New York, trying to follow China and Chinese-ness and Chinese life through the various online mechanisms? If you could describe what those mechanisms are, where they’re limited, where they’re exciting...well this is such a sophisticated group they already know, but tell me what online life and what you can find out is like.

Jiayang Fan: Well, I constantly suffer from fear of missing out when I’m reading, whether through Weibo, or WeChat. It feels like an urban metropolis that’s building, and you don’t quite know what neighborhoods are going to flourish. A lot of times it’s a subject that I’m interested in, and I’ll search for it, and see what the conversation is like, and who is talking about it, and what the parameters of that conversation are. And what I find is that it is oftentimes not what I expect. Earlier, when you were talking about distance, I think for a lot of...whenever I talk to Chinese friends about just the idea of distance abroad, or what their significance is, I often sense a defensiveness on their part, this sense of “Well that’s what you Westerners focus on. That’s what your reporting is on, and your narrative is that they’re always heroes—that because they’re not part of the mainstream, they’re somehow better than us.” And when I ask what concerns them, their idea of what’s relevant to their lives is often times so different than what I see in Western media. So online, I find that not all threads are fruitful. But sometimes when they talk about a book that’s particularly appealing, it’s not always the book itself that I think is interesting, but how they see that book, and how their vision of China coheres with what they see as the themes in that book.

David Remnick: Do you follow online life?

Zha Jianying: A lot.

David Remnick: And what do you derive from it?

Zha Jianying: There’s actually a wild and kind of creative energy if you surf the Chinese Internet. There’s thousands, like seventy thousand silos of bloggers making all kinds of noises in all directions. When earlier I talked about how Beijing feels like a skin rash to me because it irritates when I’m there, but the other side is that as soon as I leave, I have this itch to go back, because as soon as you have a distance, and you read, you realize there are all these possibilities and people walking around with multiple masks, they have multiple lives, as Evan was just saying.

David Remnick: Like complex human beings. What are you not hearing though? What is being shut out of the Internet at this point in China?

Zha Jianying: Of course, there is an ongoing and intensifying recently censorship of the direct political commentary. It’s still going on because a lot of people post with pseudonyms, and then a lot of them moved out of the public space, which is this Chinese form of twitter, Weibo, to WeChat, which is more private and harder to track.

David Remnick: Reliably private.

Zha Jianying: Well not reliably, because if the room grows too big, then it becomes more of a target. And there are these thousands of professional deleters, sitting in these portals, and that’s their job, to delete, delete. But I think the dissidents are not just out in the open, there are some potential dissidents in a lot of these Chinese who mask themselves as liangmin, as good citizens. Because they know that’s too dangerous. And let’s face it, everybody has a self-interest. People want to show at some point, when it’s not too risky, that they also have a heart, that they care about certain issues too. But they do get defensive, like Jiayang is saying, when they get accused of being a coward. But then if you read the Chinese, there’s also a lot of talk about this kind of cynical, little person who can hide so much inside that they become a fake person. So there’s a lot of double talk going on, there’s a lot of guilty conscience going on, but I think we should also remember what Orville said earlier. When he went there in the last period of the Cultural Revolution, he had no clue that something might happen, which did happen, majorly, just a few years later. So there is that unpredictability about a place so vast and so complex. The space is constantly fluid, it’s evolving, so we shouldn’t have any conclusion at this point, it’s just another chapter.

David Remnick: This is the moment in evenings such as this, there’s always a slightly uncomfortable hinge when you have to have a question but it’s always hard to have the first question. But we do want to have questions from you, and feel free to fire away. Are there microphones somewhere? Oh good, there’s a happy volunteer right there. No, not you...up there. You’re next, I promise. Okay, excellent. Stand and deliver.

Audience Member: Hi, thank you guys for the great presentation.

David Remnick: I can’t hear you sir.

Audience Member: Thank you for the great presentation. Can you hear me now?

David Remnick: I can. I just wanted to hear the compliment twice.


Audience Member: My question is: for those that aren’t native Chinese, why did you leave China? And for those who were born in China, why haven’t you gone back to live in China? Is China compelling enough for you to go back to live at this stage?

David Remnick: It’s a personal question, but O.K. Jiayang.

Jiayang Fan: I did not have a choice in leaving China, I was following my parents. In terms of why I haven’t, I very much do want to go back to China. But I am still figuring out a way to do that, that makes sense in all arenas of my life at this point.

Zha Jianying: Was that a question for me too?

David Remnick: I think a little bit.

Zha Jianying: Why do I…

Peter Hessler: But you haven’t left, and maybe you should explain…

David Remnick: You should explain how you do this.

Zha Jianying: Actually, well, I was born and raised in Beijing, came as a student, and then returned to live in China, and I was actually there during Tiananmen. Afterwards, I moved back again, and ever since, I’ve been going back and forth. So currently, I actually divide my year half and half between China and the U.S. So I’m making a home here and there.

David Remnick: Excellent, this gentlemen here. Yes, you. Hang on, wait for the microphone, although it doesn’t seem you need it.

Audience Member: Thank you. I’m kind of curious about this trans-pacific partnership, which President Obama says or he seems to imply that he wants to contain China economically. Why not engage China or encourage China to join the TPP and if so, would China be receptive to joining that, so we could have some universal rules of international trade and finance? Everybody playing by the same rules.

David Remnick: Okay, Evan, why don’t you take a crack at it.

Evan Osnos: I think actually it’s interesting in your question, when Obama says that this is to contain China. I think actually Obama is pretty emphatic about not using that kind of language, he tries to avoid—but certainly I think there is an impression amongst some in the U.S.-China relationship that that’s the intent of the TPP. Actually, if you look at it a slightly different way...look, let’s talk frankly. The TPP was designed to enhance the American relationship with other countries in Asia; China was not one of the first countries involved. It’s possible China may in fact be a member in the future. In the beginning, Chinese trade and foreign policy vigils were really opposed to the idea. They interpreted this as a hostile act. Actually today, if you talk to people in Beijing, people come to Washington, they say, “we recognize in the long run actually this isn’t all that bad.” One of the reasons why it isn’t all that bad, is if the United States had not signed a trade deal with Asia, then the so called pivot to Asia would have really just been a military exercise, would have been all about security. And so what this does is say “look, let’s remind ourselves, this is a much broader relationship than just security, and we need to be there for all kinds of reasons.” So I wouldn’t count out the idea that in the future, we may find ourselves...China may be in the TPP.

David Remnick: I’m going to make you run, right over there, if you don’t mind. This woman in about the sixth...okay, you can go first then this woman here.

Audience Member: My question is about writing. I’m like Jiayang, I left China when I was young, and right now I’m trying to write about China, but it turns out there are a lot of cultural subtleties, a lot of things that I’m trying to explain, but it turns out to be very difficult. A more important thing is that sometimes, I get a feeling that Western Americans might not even care. So how do you make the strangeness relatable to American readers?

David Remnick: How do you make the strangeness relatable to an American audience, is that the question?

Audience Member: Yes.

Evan Osnos: You could say that about the GOP debate too, I should add too by the way.


David Remnick: Peter, do you want to take a crack at that one?

Peter Hessler: I don’t know exactly how to answer. Knowing your subject obviously is important, because when it’s no longer strange to you, it’s a lot easier to convey it in a way that isn’t so outlandish or unfamiliar. But I think that basically, writing about China is fundamentally the same as writing about America. Most of us here have written about lots of other subjects. After China, I was in Colorado and I wrote about small towns in Colorado. Now I’m in Cairo, and I’m writing about things in Egypt, and these are all really different places, but it’s fundamentally the same act basically. It requires the same kind of legwork, and the same writing tools. So I think in that sense, there’s really nothing special about China. Maybe it’s a little harder to penetrate because of knowing the language and so on, but the same tools that you use to approach any other place are necessary there.

David Remnick: Anybody else? The next question was down here. I’m clearly very bad at this.

Audience Member: Thank you. My name is Zhao Ying, I write for Hong Kong media. We discussed how The New Yorker covered China tonight, but I want to mention how The New Yorker changed China. One of the many changes is the wave of nonfiction writing in China. The New Yorker really inspired a lot of Chinese readers to write nonfiction. I wonder, for the panelists tonight, I don’t know how much you read about how Chinese writers cover China in a nonfiction style. What do you think I’m missing in those pieces? And what makes a good writer in nonfiction writing? It’s not a question that you can answer in a minute, but I wonder how you would boil it down in one or two points.

David Remnick: Orville, do you want to take a crack at that?

Orville Schell: I mean, I think it’s true that there are a lot of magazines and periodicals that have sprung up, that I think have been very much inspired by The New Yorker. I can think of two that I know, the sort of narrative form where you are given enough time to sort of make your case. When I first started for the magazine as Josette mentioned, it was quite astounding. It was five consecutive issues. It wasn’t like Evan described, those 999 words. I think the challenge in China in writing this way, is that challenge they’re confronting in trying to be more innovative in every other field, is the controls. What you feel you can write, and what can be published easily. Although China is an immensely creative place in many ways, for writing, because you want to be in public, otherwise you’re just writing for the tradition of drawer literature in China, but nobody reads it. I think that can be very inhibiting right now, for the kind of writing The New Yorker does. As David says, you really have to let the writer write, and the editor can help him say what he wants.

Evan Osnos: I think there is also a sort of admiration for the technical experience of writing. I remember I got a Chinese writer friend of mine, who said, “do you want to come talk about the fact checking process?” I made Jiayang a celebrity in China, by the way, by talking about her in this thing. I figured sure, I’d get six ink-stained colleagues of some kind, Chinese counterparts in a room. This has nothing to do with me; it’s about The New Yorker. I show up, and it was standing room only, there were kids sitting in the aisles, all of them working journalists, young journalists of a kind. I was genuinely moved by their interest in fact checking, because it’s more than a technical process. Really, it’s an affect. It’s about a belief that there are facts, that you can ascertain them, and that they matter, and that you should fight hard to document them. And this idea was like, for a lot of the reporters who were working in Chinese media, it was an exotic experience. To the point that there was a Chinese editor who I interviewed…

David Remnick: He didn’t mean that in a personal way.


Evan Osnos: Well I wrote about a Chinese editor, who when he was fact checked, when Jiayang called him, he then wrote a piece in a Chinese newspaper “I Was Fact Checked by The New Yorker.”

David Remnick: I’ve never read that, I’d love to. We have some questions from our brothers and sisters on the Internet. This is from Jonathan Pappish in New York, and it says, “Evan Osnos, how is it possible to be as good looking as you are?” That’s not the question.


Evan Osnos: It’s my wife, she’s online, I can tell.


David Remnick: That’s Angelica Tang’s question. No, is it necessary today for a good China correspondent to have Chinese language ability, and what will they miss if they don’t? That seems a pretty straightforward question that I think you can all punt right out of the stadium.

Orville Schell: I think even if you do have Chinese language, Chinese as a language is so profoundly boundless, you still miss an enormous amount. Because there’s classical, there’s history, there’s…

David Remnick: Can I...you two should pretend that we’re not here. Is it really impossible for people who aren’t native Chinese speakers to know Chinese efficiently, to get around as well as they think they are?

Jiayang Fan: I have two points on this. One, I’ve found having worked with both Evan and Pete, who are very fluent in Chinese, but are not native speakers, that I find that almost to be somewhat of an advantage in a sense, because they’re both so exceptionally scrupulous when it comes to making sure that they have everything right. Sometimes I think that if it were a native Chinese journalist, perhaps she would think, “Well, you know, I know this terrain. I don’t need to check that 99th degree.” But I find that’s part of what I learned about being a foreign correspondent, because they both are so aware of being a foreign presence in China, I think they go out of their way to make sure that literally every T is crossed, and every I is dotted.

Zha Jianying: Well, I don’t have the non-native speaker problem. But I do have experience with Jiayang, when she was checking my piece on Wang Meng, who is a former culture minister. When I looked at the pages Jiayang was working on, I saw a massacre. She had this method of checking line by line, blocking them out with red ink.

David Remnick: I’ve been there.

Zha Jianying: I only had that experience with Chinese censors. Because they would also mark with red ink, and I would be horrified.

David Remnick: She’s brutal. I’ve had that experience too.

Zha Jianying: Even someone like Wang Meng, who’s a very high profile writer, was a little bit shocked of getting this phone call from Jiayang all the way from New York, just checking on whether he said this and that. I think that’s a message for a lot of Chinese journalists that’s new, because when nonfiction started in China in the 1980s, it wasn’t even called nonfiction, it’s called baogao wenxue, which means literary reportage. And usually the journalist sitting on top of the Olympic mountain opines on the subject. So it’s very opinionated, very subjective, and with very little regard for the facts. So this was a totally different era of nonfiction writing. I think today, The New Yorker is probably a leading magazine that’s showing an example of how important fact checking is. Though I think Orville is right, that’s going to be very hard to accomplish.

David Remnick: We sadly have only a couple more minutes. This is the season of lists. Anybody who runs an Internet operation knows the best way to get traffic is top ten lists. You know, top ten bagels, or films, or whatever for the year. Not long ago, I read...I try to read Chinese history with some volume, and I read Henry Kissinger’s book on China and discovered that the most important person in the history of China is Henry Kissinger. May or may not be accurate. So what I want, selfishly, is a recommendation from each of you on a book that I may not have read, about China, that I can read in translation, preferably, that’s not by one of the distinguished panelists here. It doesn’t have to be a desert island-esque type of thing.

Orville Schell: Please don’t start with me, David.

David Remnick: Peter.

Peter Hessler: I don’t know if I can remember the title, but there’s a history book called 1522 or something, the year of no significance. You guys probably know. What’s the year? Or is it just the year of no significance?

Zha Jianying: It’s the Ming Dynasty I think…

Peter Hessler: Anyway, it’s just a great history book, because he’s just picking a kind of random year in the Ming that’s not very important, and as you see there’s all kinds of things going on, and it’s a fascinating glimpse, and it’s a nice way to put history into perspective, and to put what we do into perspective as well.

David Remnick: Okay, Jiayang.

Jiayang Fan: I’m also blanking on the name of the book, but it was memorable, just not its name. [laughter] I think it’s by a British Chinese author, Susan Barker? Anyone?

Audience Member: Incarnations.

Jiayang Fan: Incarnations, I did read it from page one.

David Remnick: We’ve turned this into a quiz show. And what’s the Incarnation about?

Jiayang Fan: It follows the life of a Beijing taxi driver, except he’s had six lives before the present one. And it basically takes you through 1500 years of Chinese history. He was a palace maid who was raped at one point, and he was a young bride who was sold into prostitution, so in fiction form it was a great way of taking you through the darknesses in Chinese history.

Zha Jianying: I’m going to say this book by a French historian and diplomat, I think his name is Jean Peyrefitte? Anyway, the title of the book is The Immobile Empire.

David Remnick: Immobile Empire.

Zha Jianying: Yeah. It’s a big fat tome of a book, it’s really about this moment in late Qing dynasty when the British send a ship, and the ambassador, I think Lord Macartney was sent to meet with emperor Qianlong, to present the latest…

David Remnick: It’s a famous episode.

Zha Jianying: Yeah. The whole mission failed, and one of the sticking points was that the British refused, and Lord Macartney refused to kneel down.

David Remnick: To lay prostrate.

Zha Jianying: Yeah. And then the Chinese had to explain it to the emperor; the British really had a different knee, that there’s a bone problem. [laughter] But anyways, it’s full of really colorful and revealing stories. Both about the court, and because the sailors on the ship really saw a lot of ordinary lives on route, because it was a slow travel to Beijing from Canton. So it was a very revealing portrait of China in that critical point, which could be read as a missed opportunity, but it tells a lot about Chinese history. And the follow up on that is actually called Restless Empire, which I think—well, start on the first one.

Evan Osnos: There’s a book that I love called Deep China, which is edited by an anthropologist named Arthur Kleinman, he’s a sinologist as well and a psychiatrist. And he edited a book of essays by his Chinese students, who have gone on to be anthropologists and amazing scholars of one kind or another. It sort of gets to what Pete was mentioning before—they have this rigor in their work, but they also come at it with their Chinese sensibility, so you get these extraordinary essays. The things that they’ve chosen to write about—for instance, one of the pieces in there is about how China went from a society in which you bought and sold blood donations, people had to paid to donate blood, to a society in which people choose to donate blood, and those kinds of sort of minor things that we would never notice but are profound in their own way. Anyway, Deep China is the name of the book, and I really think it’s terrific.

David Remnick: Orville.

Orville Schell: A writer I love, who recently passed away, was Simon Leys, or Pierre Ryckmans, who was a Belgian, a diplomat, and wrote wonderful, wry, insightful, and often quite dark accounts of China. The person he loved most of all in Chinese literature was the writer Lu Xun, who wrote in the ’20s and died in the ’30s, who I think also is incomparable in the sense that he deeply loved China, but he was deeply dark, sardonic, wry, and critical. But I think he had it right, he understood the great state of contradiction in which his country existed, and I think it continues to exist in a great state of contradiction, and needs a Lu Xun now to go at it in a similar way.

David Remnick: Well I really want to thank the panelists, you have been extraordinary. Thank you very very much.

—Transcribed by Gavin Cross.