Young women wearing masks in China to protect against COVID

Women wearing face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walk by a smiley faces billboard during their lunch break in Beijing, Monday, July 19, 2021.

Peter Hessler’s books about China have resonated with both Western and Chinese audiences, an accomplishment that seems unlikely today, when the “China story” has become a political and diplomatic battleground.

Hessler is the China correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, a position he also held between 2000 and 2007, when he published two of his four books on China. His first book, “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze,” documented his experience teaching as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small town in the southwestern Sichuan province in the mid-1990s.

“When I wrote ‘River Town,’ I assumed that any Chinese person who read it would hate it,” Hessler told Nieman Storyboard. Instead, he was surprised by the positive response.

He credits that partly to nostalgia: During a time when Chinese society was changing so quickly and dramatically, few people had time to reflect on the experience. With a combination of humor and boots-on-the-ground discovery, Hessler dove into the stories of students, entrepreneurs and archaeologists while etching out a sense of time and space, and using his perspective as a foreign journalist to guide Western audiences. His magazine works shows that same signature style.

Author and New Yorker staff writer Peter Hessler

Peter Hessler

In 2011, Hessler was awarded the MacArthur “genius grant” for his “keenly observed accounts of ordinary people responding to the complexities of life in such rapidly changing societies as Reform Era China.”

After spending a few years covering Egypt for the New Yorker, Hessler returned to China in 2019 and took a teaching job at the Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute in Chengdu, the major city in south-central China. His stay coincided with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan and the rising tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade, China’s treatment of its Uyghur ethnic minority, and a spate of other issues.

Among them was the expulsion last year of more than a dozen U.S. journalists from China as part of a tit-for-tat dynamic that had started with the Trump administration curbing the number of Chinese journalists in the U.S.

In his story “The Rise of Made-in-China Diplomacy,” which appeared in March in the New Yorker, Hessler explores the intricacies of U.S.-China trade ties, mainly through the experiences of a Chengdu-based export entrepreneur, Li Dewei. Hessler connects the dots between Li’s 2020 sales and the stimulus check sent to many Americans. He pulls the curtain back on the U.S. government’s claims of a “decoupling” from China, showing how quickly Chinese entrepreneurs pivoted to meet the demands of the American market.

“Decoupling had been envisaged as an economic process, but the market links were stronger than ever,” Hessler wrote. “The separation was happening almost entirely at the human level.”

The story exudes his trademark humor, including a riff on “Amazonglish,” — those oddly named products that pepper the site with descriptions that are not quite grammatical. The Amazon shopping experience, previous U.S. policies toward China, and Hessler’s own full-circle return to teach in China transform this trade-centric story into a Hessler staple: an easy-to-cross bridge between the world’s two largest economies.

In May, Hessler announced on the social media platform Douban that he and his family would be leaving China after the university declined to renew his contract. He would not discuss details, but said he had hoped to stay in Chengdu at least another year.

In a Q&A with Storyboard, Hessler talked about the benefits and luxuries of allowing a story to develop over time, about how he works to understand China from the ground up, and about what is lost when there are fewer foreign correspondents working in the world’s most populous — and increasingly powerful — nation. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Author and New Yorker writer Peter Hessler in China

 

How did the story of the pandemic business pivot come about?
Shortly after the pandemic started I did an initial piece on the lockdown experience. By the time I was done with that piece, things were opening up again and I wanted to do some reporting on how people were responding to all the changes. As part of that, I wanted to meet somebody doing business here, and I met Li Dewei. It struck me when he said he seen a benefit from the U.S. stimulus checks in his sales. I realized that these links are really tight, and these people can really tell what’s going on. I wrote two more stories after my initial pandemic piece without mentioning him because I thought he would make a longer-term story following his reactions to the pandemic.

I’ve lived in China before, and for a time in Egypt. Things in places like this often move very quickly. In the 1990s and 2000s when I lived in China, you could often go to a place repeatedly over a period of a year or so and see changes that would create the trajectory of your story. In fast-moving societies, that’s a tool that a journalist can use. It’s longitudinal research, which journalists often have trouble doing because they don’t have the resources to spend years and years on a story. But in these places it can be more condensed. In this case, I was able to spend eight months or so, and see a lot of changes in Dewei’s thinking and experiences as a businessman.

How did you meet him? Did you look for someone who was involved in U.S.-China trade, or did you meet him first?
I asked a friend if he knew somebody who was doing export trade. It’s not that common in Chengdu actually — it’s not like being in Shenzhen — so I was very luckyy. But my friend here is very well-connected. I think he and Dewei went to the same high school, and these networks can be quite strong. Again, this is a pattern I’ve often followed in my journalism: I have students here that I’ve been in touch with for 20 years. I’ve learned that you go back to people, meet them again, and the story deepens.

You mentioned the idea of longitudinal research and how in China temporal events can be more condensed. Why is it important for a story like this to give a sense of how things develop over time?
My father is a sociologist, so I grew up thinking about social sciences long before journalism. I took one nonfiction writing class at the end of my university time, and then over time, I developed this interest in journalism, but I had this prior exposure to social sciences — to anthropology and sociology. They think a lot about methodology — how you do research — and the idea of longitudinal study is important.

Efficiency is very important for journalism, which sometimes can be a problem. One advantage I have is that I don’t have to write that many stories; I’m not tied to the news as much as a typical journalist. I can be more deliberate about how I structure things.

There are advantages to following a story as it unfolds. Chinese people don’t see themselves as the center of the world as much as Americans do, and so sometimes their attitude is, “Well, I’m not really very important.” Or, “This experience isn’t very important, so why are we talking about this?” They just won’t tell you much or they’ll condense the story a lot. Even in the U.S. that can be the case: The details that somebody tells you about a story that already happened might not be the same details that would strike you if you had observed that story unfolding.

So my goal with a project like this was to visit Dewei every month, to see how he sees things at this point, and then at that point. If I had gone to him in January of this year and said, “What were the last eight months like?” I’m not sure the story that he would tell me would be the same one I observed. I’m not sure that he’s going to say, “At the beginning of this pandemic, I had a totally different view of what was going to happen. I thought that U.S. trade was going to be screwed, and so I was trying to make plans elsewhere.” He probably wouldn’t have emphasized that as much as I did in my story. It gives a different kind of legitimacy to your analysis because I had these interactions at these three moments over time. Not every story works this way, but I have often structured things so while I’m doing this, I’m also doing a lot of other reporting. I did a story about teaching here the second phase of the COVID strategy, when China kind of had stamped everything out; it was about how they did that and how it worked, seen partly through the eyes of my students. Then I did another story about Wuhan. If you’re careful, you can have these different threads going at the same time. Even if you’re a journalist doing intense news stuff, you can try to set up projects where you’re visiting a group of people or an individual or a place periodically and tracking something.

It got harder to meet with Dewei as time went on. This is often true in China because sometimes people get a little suspicious as to why haven’t you written anything yet. I had to work harder to meet with him in the end than in the beginning. He was also getting busier. I would have liked to have met him more in the last three months of the story, but fortunately I was able to meet him enough.

In my third book from China, “Country Driving,” there’s a section about a factory in Zhejiang. I went to this development zone over a period of three years and focused on one pair of entrepreneurs, watching their experiences from when they set up the factory to when they got their machinery to when they hired their workers. I was able to watch these things happen over time, but it was a constant negotiation because they didn’t understand why it was taking me so long. You have to spend a lot of time reassuring people when you’re doing this kind of project.

You’ve got to reassure people that you’re not engaging in espionage. Especially in the old days before I was known here as a writer, people were always afraid that I was gathering material to start a business. Now I’m better known as a writer here, so Dewei knows that I’m not a businessman. But he’s still worried about secrets getting out. There are a couple of name brands that he was using that he got touchy about; he asked me not to put them in the story, and I didn’t. They were really funny names and would be good details in the story, but he let me use the other brands and I wanted to make him feel comfortable.

You mentioned that the movement of time feels faster in China. I’ve worked here for a few years, and understand what you mean. But how would you explain that to journalists who have not covered China?
The pace at which Dewei is making decisions is really intense. I meet him in at the end of March or maybe April, soon after the pandemic started. He’s thinking that his American stuff is getting cut and he’s going to produce now for the Chinese market. In less than two months, he’s completely abandoned that. Then he starts this pet business, and he gets that going. Somebody like Dewei just works all the time, and this is true of a lot of people in China. There is also more of an appetite for risk, and the competitiveness is so intense that they have to make quick decisions.

In the past, there was a level of instability that is deep in people’s minds. That aconditions you to make quick decisions and to adjust and abandon old plans without torturing yourself about it. I think that’s very hard for an American.

Part of what we’re seeing is that Americans psychologically are not in a good place right now. That’s partly because they lack flexibility; they were accustomed to stability. Average Americans, especially white Americans, could expect their lives to get better, not to have huge challenges. That has changed a lot in the past 20 years, and I think people have difficulty adjusting to that. I don’t see that same difficulty here. People don’t expect things to stay the same. They understand that their fortunes can go up and down.

You said you met Li Dewei through a friend. I’ve also noticed after moving here that one of the best ways to go about earning people’s trust here is to go through someone they know. How do you see the process and how has it evolved over time? Was it the case in the 2000s that it was hard for people to trust a foreign journalist, and are people more trusting now? Or has it become even more difficult?
In the 2000s, I wrote about a lot of people I met by random, like those factory people I wrote about in my third book. In those years, I never worked with a fixer. I would just go to places and find people to talk to. I have solid Chinese, but it’s not my best strength. But I spent maybe a year working completely solo and just depending on myself to find people. I think sometimes over-reliance on fixers can be a mistake — it can dull certain instincts you have, and certain sensibilities. I think I’m actually pretty decent at making people comfortable in China. Some of it is unconscious — body language and who knows what. But I started here in the Peace Corps in 1996. I was one of only two foreigners living in a really small place in Sichuan province. That kind of experience is so intense that you learn a lot about communicating with people and trying to make them feel comfortable with you as a foreigner.

My situation this time has been quite different this time for a number of reasons. I go back to Fuling a lot, where I lived in the Peace Corps, and I know a ton of people there. Our familiarity is really deep. And I know a lot of people here in Chengdu. I have relied more on friends and people here to introduce me to folks than I did in the past. I could be efficient because I already had these networks here, some of them more than 20 years old at this point.

The political problems have not caused me great problems personally as a reporter. Some of it may be location – Chengdu is far from Beijing and people are here just more laid back. It has surprised me though. I thought it might be harder.

Even when I went to Wuhan last August, I didn’t know what would happen — I thought they’d just turn me around after two days and ask me to go home. I told my editors, “I’m not sure if this is going to work, but it’s worth trying.” And after a few days, I sent my editor a note saying, “I’ve been able to do good interviews.” There’s always an unpredictable element to it. The main thing is to get yourself out there and see how far you can go.

Your story about Li Dewei’s business is rich in detail and has a clear narrative line. How did you decide what you put in and what to leave out? For example, I didn’t see much about the government’ new “dual circulation” strategy to reduce reliance on foreign trade and boost domestic consumption, but we got glimpses of that through some of your personal experiences.
With U.S.-China relationships so politically charged, a human element is often lacking in stories about China. It’s also just lack of contact — there aren’t enough journalists here now, and it’s very hard for journalists to move around, especially if you’re based in Beijing. Beijing has had tighter restrictions during the pandemic, and the journalists there are overworked. It’s hard for them to do long features and take off and do long research trips.

The thing I can do is have more of a human element in my stories, and that also includes my own personal experience. I’m in a Chinese danwei (work unit). I’m at a university, my kids are in a Chinese school. Those details have often been parts of my stories because they can help orient the reader a little bit and humanize this experience to some degree. That doesn’t mean you’re making everything look great, but it helps people understand that there’s a human element to this. Everybody in the U.S. is intensely aware of how much their routines have been changed and what their day-to-day life is like now; I want to give them some sense of that here as well.

For this piece, Dewei’s story is the thread that organizes it, but I also wanted to include this larger sense of the U.S.-China issue. It’s interesting to see the differences in students and interactions now compared to when I was first here in the 1990s. I’m trying to convey that — the way the universities feel, the fact that universities here are huge, modern places now, but you still have the Marxist Institute.

I also wanted to include, for example, the embassy closure. It’s fascinating that while all this business is going on and all these long-distance connections, the personal links are also getting pulled apart. An American institution is disappearing, the same way the Peace Corps disappeared.

And the Fulbright program to China was suspended in 2020, something that also happened for a year in 1989.
It’s kind of tragic. Those are big mistakes, in my opinion, by the U.S.

How would you say that your presentation of China for a mostly U.S. audience has changed in the past 20 years? What are some of the things you used to include in terms of context or angles 20 years ago, and what is different now?
Again, it’s a little hard to compare because all of my recent writing here has been in this weird pandemic situation. And this has been the biggest crisis in U.S.-China relations that I’ve experienced. I was here during some other times when it was tense, but it was never like this. It’s also a very different type of Chinese government; it’s become more repressive in the last decade.

I feel like from the beginning of the pandemic, there was a risk of portraying China in inhuman terms because of the political problems and the nature of the start of the pandemic. We can see that in the waves of racism in the U.S. against Asian Americans. There also have been times when the Chinese demonized Americans or other foreigners, and you could feel it on the street. I don’t want to contribute to any of that.

How do you navigate being told that you are pro-China?
Part of it is by not having any social media presence. I’m not on Twitter; I’m not on Facebook. I don’t really like computers, and I don’t like phones either, so I just don’t do those things. It’s better for my sanity.

You’re a celebrated China writer and an important figure for many of the current China correspondents. What do you think has contributed to so many people resonating with your China reporting over time?
I don’t know. There was more of a connection by Chinese readers than I expected. When I wrote “River Town,” I assumed that any Chinese person who read it would hate it because I was describing life in a somewhat poor part of the country, and I was talking very honestly about what it was like. I thought it was positive, but I also knew the Chinese tend to be very sensitive about these things, so I expected that book to make people unhappy. But I was surprised. Then, when my first book was published in Chinese – it was “Country Driving” – I didn’t expect anybody in China to really care. But people connected with it.

The Chinese are very generous in allowing a foreigner to tell these stories. That doesn’t happen everywhere. It didn’t happen in Egypt; most educated Egyptians did not like what I was writing about society there. I thought they were unfair in the way that they would attack me or my wife or other outsiders for writing about the society.

That was true in China in the past. For example, Pearl S. Buck, who really knew China and wrote about it very accurately — educated, elite Chinese hated her at the time.

That hasn’t been my experience. I think some of it is nostalgia because I was here in the ‘90s when so much was changing. It was also very hard for Chinese to record that moment because it was so intense and so demanding that they didn’t have a minute to sit back and think what’s happening to us. As a foreigner, I had that luxury; I could step back and observe things.

The Peace Corps also was a very useful way to first come here because I arrived with very few preconceptions. I hadn’t been trained in Chinese studies, and I was dropped into a very average place, in a small city. It gives you a very efficient introduction, and was also very human because so much of my time then depended on interactions. I was part of a Chinese university, part of a Chinese danwei, and so I was part of the system in a way that journalists rarely are. That experience also made me take poverty pretty seriously because the people I was teaching and the people I was friends with, most of them had been poor pretty recently and I could see what the differences meant in their lives,. It wasn’t abstract in Fuling in 1996.

One of the reasons that I wanted to come back as a teacher this time was because one of the challenges of journalism is that you’re kind of separated from society. After 20 years of being a journalist I felt it would be good to have a role here where I’m part of a Chinese institution and where I’m interacting with people in a way other than just being a reporter.

What has kept you in China for so long, and keeps you returning? What is about this place that makes you want to tell stories from here?
It grabbed me because of the energy. The first time I was in China, in 1994, I was traveling as a tourist. I happened to go through Beijing and some other parts of China, and it felt like there was a tangible energy, that people were doing something. Then being in the Peace Corps helped me understand how this was happening on the ground, and it was pretty inspiring. The young people who I was teaching had come from very poor backgrounds and now were making something different with their lives. I also liked being here. There was a lot of humor here. As a writer, humor is one of my tools. To me, that’s part of how you humanize a place and make it relatable, and China has always had a lot of that.

Then, of course, as time goes by, your connections to a place deepen. My wife is Chinese American, and she spent more than a decade writing here as well,. So it’s quite natural that we would both  feel this connection and want to come back.

You mentioned that this is the most difficult time in U.S.-China relations that you’ve experienced as a journalist, and it’s also a time when foreign journalists’ access to China has been severely limited. In this context, if you were a correspondent here settling in for the long haul, what would you focus on? What do you think is important to convey and report and document about China now?
It is different for people who are formal correspondents. For me, because I also was teaching, my top priority had to be the pandemic. This is a global public health issue, and all over the world, people need to know what’s happening in other countries. The second priority was the U.S.-China situation. Those were the crises things that I felt an obligation to write about.

If you’re a correspondent based in Beijing, it’s an incredibly difficult time. It’s almost like the Chinese government fell into a trap — the Trump Administration expels Chinese journalists and then the Chinese expel American journalists, and they seem to think that it’s good for them. But actually this was a period when, after the initial mistakes and cover-up, China basically handled the pandemic well. Society has functioned more or less normally, but there have been very few people here to document that. And the reporters who are here feel embattled. They’ve got to renew their visas every three months, their colleagues have been expelled, they’re not happy. You’re not going to get a lot of positive coverage in that situation.

Why do you think it’s important that we still have foreign journalists in China? Because there seems to be a distancing on both sides. What can be lost, and why is it important to still do this kind of work?
There’s almost a belief that you can do things remotely — that you don’t really need that many people on the ground, that there’s enough information on Twitter or Weibo or whatever. There is a lack of respect for the on-the-ground experience and reporting — a lack of respect by the media organizations, in some degree by readers, and by analysts.

If you were to make a case for why American audiences should still learn about the daily lives of Chinese people, what would that be?
The U.S. government sometimes portrays a pretty extreme picture of what China is — the Chinese government — at a time like this. That sort of the rhetoric and the extreme nationalism, the antagonism, can be way on the edge. But interactions with the average people are not like that. Even during this time, I don’t experience tension on the street as a foreigner walking around. If I introduce myself as an American, I don’t feel animosity. That’s important to convey because a lot of the government mouthpieces would suggest that that’s the Chinese approach to the outside world right now.

There may be important sensibilities that are larger than those on the ground, and maybe in the long run those things matter. We don’t know for sure. But it’s important to convey both of them. Political tensions are not necessarily permanent, and there are deeper trends in society that may be more significant and that we have to keep track of.

It’s also unequal. There are many Chinese in America; it’s easier for them to get information about America. On the other end, it’s really hard. We don’t have enough people here. We can’t really trust the Chinese media to portray things as they should be portrayed. We really depend heavily on having people here, like journalists, who can try to capture this for us.

Are there still China stories you want to do that you haven’t done yet?
Lots. It’s still a great place for a reporter. Right now I have 50 students who are doing reporting projects all around Chengdu. Most of kids are not even journalism majors — they’ve never done anything like this before. But they turn up really fascinating stuff just because it’s everywhere in China. One student this semester — he’s in engineering — had an internship in a mine, and he met a woman who was like a psychologist for this mining company. What a fascinating thing, right? He did this great profile of her.

Just in my daily life here, too, I see stuff all the time that I would like to write about. There’s a shortage of reporters, and a shortage of time, and a shortage of investment in those reporters and in their research, But there’s no shortage of material.

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Simina Mistreanu is a journalist based in Beijing. Before moving to China, in 2015, she covered local politics in Portland, Ore. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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