Chinese-made COVID masks

Disposable face masks (non-medical), made from non-woven fabrics and melt-blown fabrics, produced on 4th, April, 2020 in Anhui province, China, with attached certificate of conformity. Masks made early in the coronavirus epidemic and sent to other countries often did not pass safety requirements.

By her own admission, New York Times reporter Sui-Lee Wee doesn’t often break news out of China; her beat coverage usually follows the reporting of multiple Chinese articles about the same subject. So she pursues human interest narratives whenever possible to differentiate her work. That’s no small feat in a country that puts strict limits on press freedoms, and where the first COVID-19 outbreak has makes travel and access even more challenging.

The coronavirus outbreak was raging in Wuhan early this year when New York Times Asia editor Adrienne Carter asked Wee and colleague Vivian Wang to pursue a story that contrasted life and death in the pandemic. The two main story subjects were both mothers and medical professionals working on the frontlines of COVID in Wuhan. Both fell ill with COVID themselves and found themselves patients in the very hospitals where they had treated others. Beyond that, their experiences and fates diverged.

New York Times story about two COVID patients in Wuhan, ChinaWee and Wang told their story in a braided narrative built around a straightforward nut graf:

The fates of Ms. Deng and Dr. Xia reflect the unpredictable nature of a virus that affects everyone differently, at times defying statistical averages and scientific research.

Wee had already left her usual post in the Beijing bureau because of COVID and was working remotely from her native Singapore. She and Wang relied heavily on New York Times researcher Amber Wang in China for help. The resulting story, “Two Women Fell Sick From the Coronavirus. One Survived,” was published in mid-March, just as the reality of COVID was taking hold in the U.S. and Europe, making it one of the first intimate narratives revealing the human toll of the disease.

A few months later, Wee heard about Liu Zengyan, a woman who escaped a beating from her husband by jumping from a second-story balcony. The beating itself was captured on video and went viral online. Wee then worked through layers of sources, with the help of New York Times researcher Liu Yi, to explore the intersection of two women’s rights issues gaining attention in China: The prevalence of domestic violence, and the difficulty of getting justice, including divorce, in a legal system stacked against women. Here’s her lede:

The husband and wife were alone in her boutique, but the security cameras captured it all: him pushing her down, punching her, slapping her and dragging her by the hair across the floor.

In footage from last year that recently circulated online, he can be seen hauling her into another room. Minutes later, the woman — her hair flailing — plummets from the second floor onto the street below in the central Chinese city of Shangqiu. The woman, Liu Zengyan, said later it was the only way she could escape.

As she lay in the hospital after the assault, with fractures in her waist, chest and eye socket and her lower limbs temporarily paralyzed, Ms. Liu said, she was determined to leave her husband for good.

But a court said no.

Wee spoke with Storyboard about how she manages to report such personal, detailed stories in China, where culture, language, and government surveillance can create many barriers to accurate reporting and immersion narratives.

Finding Your Story

New York Times reporter Sui-Lee Wee

Sui-Lee Wee

Wee grew up in Singapore, where Mandarin is one of several official languages. She reads and watches Chinese news, which was how she first learned about the doctor and nurse from Wuhan with COVID. Their stories were both published in the local press. Reading about them, Wee remembered being struck by the coincidences: “Both of them were medical workers in Wuhan. Both of them were the same age. Both of them were mothers.” She wanted to know more.

Wang, the New York Times researcher, called the Chinese reporter who had covered the original stories to get contact information for the women’s families. Wee said her experience has been that Chinese reporters don’t view the New York Times as competition, and respect the platform it gives to Chinese people.

“Chinese reporters in China have been unfailingly generous with their contacts,” Wee said. “That’s actually how a lot of our stories are done.”

Talking to Sources

At the same time, getting sources to respond to interview requests or go on the record has grown harder in the 10-plus years she’s reported from China. People are afraid of talking to the wrong people.

“We are constantly vilified by the state media and sometimes by the government,” Wee said. “It’s really getting harder and harder to talk to people,” Wee said.

Wee said she has had regular citizens who, after researching the New York Times on Chinese search engines, wanted to back out of a story. When that happens, she tries to explain to them that what they see in their online searches reflect a very specific point of view, influenced by a government that seeks to shape the message. Some sources go forward. Others drop out.

But as press restrictions have tightened in China in recent years, subject experts now refuse many of her interview requests.

“People who used to talk, like professors and people with government think tanks, they would not talk anymore,” Wee said. “It’s come to the point where the topics that you think are not sensitive at all — like pigs, when we were writing a report on swine fever — it’s really, really, really hard to find somebody to talk.”

Public records also are very hard to get, so Wee relies heavily on the domestic media. For example, the mother of one of the COVID patients was featured  in a video for the Chinese press. Domestic reporters had also published the WeChat conversations pictured in Wee’s final article.

The relationship can be different with ordinary citizens who are caught up in stories. For example, Wee said she wasn’t sure if Liu, the domestic violence victim, knew anything about the New York Times. “But she knew I was a reporter who could get this story out. And she had a point of view. She wanted to say something.”

That said, most Chinese people aren’t familiar with narrative journalism, which adds to the challenge of navigating ethical source relationships and gaining needed information to build a storyline. When Wee asks her sources specific, detailed questions about an experience, they will often say, “Why are you asking me all these details?” Or, “I don’t know, I wasn’t there,” Wee said. In response, she tells sources: “It’s a very in-depth story, akin to a magazine article. So sometimes I will  ask you to recount what you were feeling, describe specific scenes. This is so we can allow the reader to be right there, to feel what you were feeling.”

It was difficult to get detailed information from Dr. Xia’s husband, Wee said. About 20 domestic journalists had already spoken to him as grieved his wife. By the time he spoke with Wee, he would often weep or grow impatient. She never understood why he was willing to talk to her: “I think he was just a nice guy who wanted to help me,” she said.

Wee has found, however, that once they are engaged, Chinese people are more willing to share personal information than Americans.

“In China, you can straight-up ask them, ‘How much money do you make? How many boyfriends have you had?’ — that kind of thing,” she said. “People are just extremely open about things that would be considered sensitive to a lot of people. By that same token, they would ask me, ‘How much money do you make? How much money does your husband make?’

“I think most of them know the line that they cannot cross (between their personal lives and state issues). So when they’re talking about themselves, they’re happy to do it.”

And those personal stories are the ones Wee most likes to write.

Government Surveillance

Wee is always upfront about being a journalist, she said. If an official stops her on the street to ask what she’s doing, she tells them the truth. “I fundamentally think I have nothing to hide,” she said. “The more I try to cover my tracks, the more it appears to the authorities that I’m doing something that is not above board.”

She said prefers to meet her subjects in person and in their homes, “mostly because it gives me a flavor of what they are like,” but also because it’s the safest way to meet. Online government surveillance is extensive, she said. When working on highly sensitive stories, Wee leaves her phone and computer behind.

Sources sometimes tell Wee that they’re more comfortable talking to her because she’s ethnic Chinese, she said. But she said she doesn’t think her physical appearance matters that much. It mostly allows her to report, unnoticed, in a protest or courtroom, she said.

Now that she works remotely, avoiding government surveillance is trickier.

“I would have to get (sources) to download apps like WhatsApp or Signal,” she said. “But for most ordinary Chinese people that would be just too complicated.”

While she said she isn’t concerned about her safety as a journalist, she worries about her sources. “The government net that is over all the Chinese people is so extensive. It’s really hard for me to fully protect them.” And when the government officials do intervene, they usually tell sources not to speak with foreign media.

Wee’s most difficult reporting trip was last year in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, where Chinese officials were collecting DNA from ethnic Uighurs under the guise of free physical exams. The data was part of a surveillance initiative to identify and track non-conformist Uighurs, who have been the target of a government crackdown.

“(Government officials) basically sandwiched us in our car.,” she said. “They had a car in front of us and a car in the back, so we were in a caravan.”

Wee wanted to speak to a health official, but the officials refused. She persisted in her request and expressed a lot of frustration.

Finally, they said they would make him available, “but you have to take the next plane out.” She did.

 

Kristen Chin is a graduate journalism student at Boston University, documentary filmmaker, and writer.

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