Jane Perlez began reporting for The New York Times in China in late 2011. The Times named her bureau chief in Beijing in 2016. Perlez filed hundreds of stories on China’s foreign policy and led a newsroom of 25 reporters, researchers, interpreters and editors until August 2019. She’s now a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy — also home to Journalist’s Resource — where she’s exploring how governments in China and the U.S. treat reporters covering the world’s most important strategic relationship.
Perlez and I sat down to talk about the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, how the U.S.-China trade war is playing in China, faking out security forces to score an interview and the thing she misses most about her bureau in Beijing. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Clark Merrefield: In a recent talk you described being followed by Chinese security personnel while reporting in a city near the North Korean border. Can you recount that incident and other challenges of reporting in China?
Jane Perlez: Whenever you go on a reporting trip into an area that Chinese security officials deem important to their security you’re always followed. But this was particularly noticeable because as soon as we arrived to the airport there were people who noticed that we’d gotten off the plane. As soon as we got there we were followed by six cars of plainclothes security people. We were there to look at how sanctions were being busted by Chinese textile manufacturers. They were sending raw yarn and materials into North Korea and having them made up into shirts and sweaters and coats and then being shipped back across the border. And so we wanted to talk to some of the Chinese factory managers. Having been tailed by six cars of young, plainclothes security people makes it very difficult because whomever you talk to is definitely compromised.
No one really wants to speak to Western reporters because in the last couple of years there has been a lot more emphasis on censorship, on shutting out Western ideas, on saying “no” to Western democracy. So Western journalists, unfortunately, are looked upon as potential spies. That makes it very difficult. Earlier this year I went down to Guizhou, which is the poorest province in the country, to do a fairly soft story, nothing the government should have minded about. But I was there for six hours and the provincial authorities came again in like four cars and talked to the people I was with and basically ordered me out of the province and straight onto the train back to Beijing.
CM: How did you overcome being followed near the North Korean border?
JP: We had a tough time but the most important interview we had was with a woman who was a factory manager. The interpreter that I was with suggested that I go to one end of the shopping mall where we were supposed to have pizza with her. And so I was sort of the bait and the security officials came to look at me while he ducked into the pizza shop and came out with a great interview in which she said they put a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of RMB, which is the Chinese currency, into a backpack every month and went down to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, to pay the factory. So that was a great little detail that would have been hard to get if we hadn’t managed to get the interview.
CM: The big recent news out of China is the near sweep for pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong’s district council elections, which also saw record voter turnout. What do those elections mean for the rest of China and is there any important but maybe overlooked context that people in the U.S. should know as the pro-democracy movement continues in Hong Kong?
JP: Most people in China don’t pay much attention to what’s going on in Hong Kong. If they do, they don’t, for the large part, share the pro-democracy sentiments. Many Chinese look upon the Hong Kong protesters as spoiled children who should be working harder and not protesting.
As for the Chinese government, I think they’ll be very concerned about the results. I mean, the results from their point of view are probably worse than they were expecting. I’m sure they were not so naïve as to expect there wouldn’t be a turn toward pro-democracy candidates, but the turn toward pro-democracy people was much larger than they would have expected.
CM: Turning to domestic concerns, what are some ramifications or potential outcomes for China from the 2020 presidential race in terms of relations with the U.S.?
JP: They see that both parties, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, are intent on getting quote-unquote “tougher” with China. I think the Democrats realize that under [President Barack Obama] the U.S. allowed China to get away with some things that would have been better in retrospect to be tougher on.
I think in some respects the Chinese fear the Democrats more, because the Democrats, as [House Majority Leader] Nancy Pelosi said the other day, would reach out to Europe and would make the U.S. and Europe a united front against China. And [President Donald Trump] has alienated the Europeans, so it’s just the U.S. against China, but the U.S. and Europe against China is a much more formidable bloc. So I don’t think they look forward to the Democrats at all. They don’t love Trump, but they may fear the Democrats more. Of course, it depends on who the nominee is.
JP: The first thing to recognize is basically there’s only good news in the Chinese state media. So there’s not a lot of coverage about the nitty-gritty of the trade war. It’s portrayed as something that China can and will win.
The U.S. is increasingly criticized as being obstinate and unfair. But there’s not a lot of negative coverage about Trump. There could be, because Trump keeps basically delaying or demanding this or that, or sending over a document as he did in May that the Chinese [government] just put a lot of red ink through. Trump was asking them basically to put into their laws ways for the U.S. to monitor whether China was living up to any trade pact, and I don’t think any country would want legislation written to commit them to keep up a deal with a foreign country.
It’s not covered in great detail but everybody knows in China there’s a great rivalry going on with the U.S. When [President] Xi Jinping put a lot of red ink through this agreement in May he went out the next day and made a big speech saying China is now in a long, long struggle with the U.S. So people are geared up there.
CM: Why hasn’t there been much negative coverage of Trump in China’s media?
JP: Because they don’t want to demonize him. Trump in many ways has been bad news for China but in other ways he’s been relatively good news. And they may not mind if he gets reelected.
CM: In what ways has he been good news for China?
JP: Chinese officials are telling American officials, “We couldn’t have ruined the American alliance system even if we tried nearly as well as Trump has.” They’re making friends in a lot of places where the U.S. is, or was, considered in high regard.
You’ve got to remember 8 million Chinese visit Japan every year, in the last two years now. That’s an enormous number of people. It’s doing a lot for the Japanese economy. It’s also doing a lot to improve relations between China and Japan, who were mortal enemies and in many ways are still very unfriendly. But the decision by the Japanese government to open the doors to Chinese tourists has got lots and lots of implications — particularly as Trump keeps bearing down and telling the Japanese they’ve got to pay more for the alliance.
CM: “Made in China 2025” and the “Chinese Dream” are two slogans Xi Jinping rolled out earlier this decade. I’m interested in the messaging aspect because they echo American slogans and characterizations, the American Dream being the most obvious. Was that done purposely?
JP: The China Dream and China 2025, these are slogans by Xi Jinping, who’s a very clever propagandist, to promote nationalism and to tell the Chinese people that China’s going to be number one — that China is going to reclaim the position that it had in the world many centuries ago and it’s now China’s turn to be number one.
China does seek to be a serious competitor and rival against the U.S. and I think many people here in the U.S. are asleep at the wheel about this. [Competition] is nothing to be afraid of, it just means that you have to know about it and you have to be alert — and don’t be so confident.
JP: China wants to be the paramount tech leader in the world, there’s no doubt about it. “Made in China 2025” is more than just a slogan. It’s a campaign launched by Xi Jinping in 2015 to make China preeminent in ten tech endeavors in the next 10 years, from 2015 to 2025. That includes artificial intelligence, that includes driverless cars, it includes semiconductors and on and on and on. I think they are quite determined to surpass the U.S. in those areas. They have many more scientists than we have. I think the debate is whether they have the quality. They certainly have the quantity, but do they have the quality?
Their protagonist in this artificial intelligence battle, [computer scientist and businessman] Kai-Fu Lee, says that China is already ahead in artificial intelligence because the most important thing is the amount of data that you have to exploit. And because of the nature of the size of China, 1.2 billion people, China has much more data to exploit. There are others in the U.S. who say it’s really not the amount of data, it’s the way you exploit it. So it’ll be very interesting to see who crosses the finish line first.
CM: Given your background covering foreign policy, what were some major foreign policy stories that unfolded while you were in the Beijing bureau?
JP: The South China Sea is probably a total unknown to most people in the U.S., but it’s an important body of water because it’s basically the entrance to the western Pacific [Ocean]. Many of the goods from China out to the rest of the world go through the South China Sea. It’s one of the busiest, most commercially important waterways in the world.
While I was there the Chinese built artificial islands in this sea, and this contravened international law. But the U.S. didn’t really do much about it or didn’t know what to do about it. So now China has more than half a dozen artificial islands in this very, very important waterway, on some of which they have military runways and naval berths. China can have much more of a military presence in this waterway than it had before. That was quite a startling development. They have a capability to put missiles there, they can put marine soldiers there, they can put all kinds of assets there. Some military strategists in the U.S. say these islands don’t matter at all because if it came close to war, then the U.S. could just knock them out, send a couple of missiles and smash the islands to pieces. But that’s not a great way, it seems to me, to look at it.
Maybe there might have been a way to negotiate ways that the Chinese didn’t build these [islands] as fast and as dramatically as they did. But nothing was done by the Obama administration to try and stall this. The Obama administration was very keen to have China on board with the Iran nuclear deal and on the climate deal. And their reigning philosophy seemed to be, “We need China for these two things so we can’t be demanding on other things.” Seems to me you can walk and chew gum at the same time.
The other thing that happened while I was there was the explosion in surveillance. Not so much of foreigners, because you expect that, but on the Chinese people themselves. Facial recognition cameras in many, many places. Fingerprinting necessary everywhere. Social media habits watched everywhere. Very sophisticated, high-tech methods of surveilling the Chinese population. Which I think is scary, not only for the implications at home in China, but also if China decides to export this expertise.
CM: What’s one thing you miss most about your time reporting in China and one thing you’re glad to have left behind?
JP: There’s nothing I’m glad to have left behind, but I do miss my colleagues in the Beijing bureau. In particular I miss the researchers, the Chinese researchers who worked with us and helped us with language and helped us with the politics.
All the researchers are born in China, been to high school there, been to university there, and so they have breathed and lived the Chinese system all their lives. They understand it in a way that an outsider can’t really. We worked very closely with them and I really do miss their energy and their insight and their suggestions.
And, in some respects, their bravery. Because it’s not easy working for a prominent Western outlet. Researchers do get asked by local security people in Beijing what they’re working on what we’re doing. And I always told the researchers, “Look, just be honest, tell them what you’re doing. You’re not doing anything illegal. You’re working for us totally legally. The ministry of foreign affairs knows that you’re employed by us. So just be frank and candid.” But it can be a little unnerving to be interviewed like that. I have great respect for the researchers and we basically couldn’t have functioned without them. So, I’m saying “hello” to them.