BBC BLOGS - James Reynolds' China

Three years in China

James Reynolds | 01:00 UK time, Monday, 6 July 2009

Comments (155)

And so, that's it. My time in China is up. I've come to the end of my three years here - the standard life expectancy for a BBC foreign posting.

James ReynoldsI'd like to take you through a few of the things I've seen during my time here. Not a representative portrait - just some of the stories that have stuck with me.


Shortly after I arrived, I paid my first visit to a part of Beijing called the petitioners' village - a run-down collection of alleyways in which some of the country's most desperate people live while they try to get the authorities to hear their appeals for justice.

I met one man who told me of his son's murder, for which no-one had been convicted. The father sat on a bed he shared with two others and shook with sobs as he showed me pictures of his son's skeleton. He wanted to give me a copy of his petition - 40 pages of documents stapled together and sealed inside a brown envelope. He hoped that I might be able to help. I warned that there was little that I could do, but he insisted that I accept it.

Most petitioners campaign for years without any success. They're often harassed and detained by a government which would prefer them to just go away. Earlier this year, a prominent professor dismissed most petitioners as mentally ill.

Almost every day for the last two years, I've caught sight of the bereaved father's petition on my shelf at home and wondered if he ever got the justice he wanted.

Many believe that petitioners suffer from the lack of an independent judicial system. This country's courts operate without any kind of public scrutiny. I've never been able to see inside a courtroom. As a consolation, I was able to see a court building from my office window for a while - until a new building went up on the only empty bit of land between our office and the court.

Many families in China have to carry their own anguish in silence. In the summer of 2007, I went to central China to cover the news that hundreds of men had been found working as slaves in illegal brick factories. Some had been kept underground for so long that they no longer knew their own names.

Zhang BairenI met a man called Zhang Bairen. His son Zhang Zhike had gone missing and the father was hoping that his son might be one of the rescued slaves. But he wasn't.

I asked the family if they could show me a picture of their missing son but they didn't have one. The family was too poor to afford any photos.

A year later, some more men working as slaves were rescued. The family hoped that the missing Zhang Zhike might be among them. But, again, he wasn't.

Another year on, family members tell us that they have now given up hope of ever finding their lost son. Theirs is a silent grief.


Anyone who chooses to speak out has to pick their words with care. There appears to be an unofficial rule here, that you're allowed to criticise corruption and incompetence among local officials, but if you criticise this country's main leaders, or if you dare to suggest an end to one party rule, you will get into serious trouble.

Guo QuanIn January 2008, I went to Nanjing to interview Professor Guo Quan. He'd just founded the China New Democracy Party. We sat on the grounds of his university as he took me through his party's charter. At the time, I was surprised that the government didn't try to stop him. But in November 2008, the professor was arrested for subversion. He's now awaiting trial.

The activist Hu Jia has also paid for his own determination to campaign against abuses. I first met him at the end of 2007 when he was under house arrest at his apartment in Beijing. His wife, Zeng Jinyan, was expecting their first child. She told me that a police officer slept outside their front door to make sure that her husband didn't escape.

Shortly after the birth of their daughter Qianci, Hu Jia was formally arrested. He's now serving the second year of a 3 1/2 year sentence for subversion.

The police still stop outsiders from visiting his wife, Zeng Jinyan. She sent us a text message to say that the authorities allow her to visit her husband in prison once a month. Hu Jia is now routinely mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Economic Progress

But these are subjects that the government prefers not to discuss. The Chinese Communist Party prefers to focus attention on its efforts to raise people's living standards - it argues that economic progress is a much more accurate measurement of human rights.

Liang GeliangIn recent years, China has got rich because of its engagement with the outside world. This engagement began in 1971 when a group of American table tennis players was invited to compete in China. In 2008, I interviewed Liang Geliang who was a member of the Chinese team which played against the visiting Americans.

When I met him, Mr Liang was running his own ping-pong club in Beijing. He was also trying to market a new kind of table tennis bat. Instead of a normal handle, Mr Liang's bat had a wooden panel in which you insert several of your fingers. He demonstrated this in a one-sided match against our driver.

A year on, Liang Geliang says that he is still trying to find a business partner so that he can mass produce and sell his new bat.

In China, you can try to make money from pretty much anything - including the country's most famous Communist, Chairman Mao.

The first man I ever interviewed here was a sculptor called Wang Wenhai. Mr Wang specialises in making busts of the late leader, and from what I could tell, he never seemed to get bored of sculpting the same person day after day. Mr Wang's cheapest sculptures were on sale for $200.

Almost three years after I met him, the sculptor has now gone back to his home-town to look after his mother. He's still making his Mao sculptures. But he says he's not having much luck in getting people to buy them.

James Reynolds on train with Chinese migrant workersWang Wenhai's decision to return home makes him an exception. Around 200 million people in China here make a living as migrant workers - they leave their homes in the countryside to find work in the cities. But the world's financial crisis has caused many of these workers to lose their jobs.

Chen Zhongwei is one of them. Earlier this year, he lost his job at a factory in the southern city of Shenzhen. I met him during the New Year holiday while he was lolling about on his parents' small farm. After the holiday ended, he left to find work. But he couldn't find a job. So he's now back at his parents' house.

He doesn't want to work on their farm. His generation has grown up to expect to do something more exciting that farming.

Chen ZhongweiChen Zhongwei says he is now thinking of borrowing money from his parents so that he can buy a car and get work as a driver.

He has the freedom to choose his own job. That's something that his parents never had.

Thirty years ago in China, your local Communist Party work unit would pick where you went to school, what you studied at university, where you lived, where you worked, and even who you married.

In recent years, the government has stepped back from people's private lives. But the Communist Party still maintains one element of control - it dictates how many children each couple can have. China's one-child policy began in 1979. The first generation of only children the world has ever known has now grown up.

This generation has run into a set of unusual problems. A traditional preference for boys in China means that there now are too many men chasing too few women. A point I learned on the southern island of Hainan when I met a dejected set of young men who were unable to find any eligible women to marry.

Even the chased-after women find it difficult to pick someone who will satisfy their parents. In early 2008, I interviewed Ji Nan, an only child in her 20s who was searching for a husband. When we met, she was an architect. She now works for a magazine which specialises in bridal fashion. She is still single.

Beijing Olympics

For much of my time here, this country was busy preparing for the Beijing Olympics.

James Reynold with his Olympic passesTaxi drivers in the capital were made to wear fresh yellow shirts and to take English lessons. One driver even told us he wrote the answers to the English test on his sleeve. Factories and building sites were shut down in order to clear the city's pollution. Organisers promised a drug-free Olympics.

A year before the Games began, I travelled to northern China to meet a former weightlifter, Zou Chunlan. During her career, she was made to take unidentified supplements. She believes that these were steroids. After she took them, she started to grow facial hair and developed serious health problems.

When we met her, she and her husband were running a laundry with the help of the Chinese Women's Association.

Zou ChunlanTwo years later, she tells us that her business is doing so well that she no longer needs any financial support. She and her husband are now thinking of opening up a second laundry.

The couple watched the Olympics on TV along with the rest of this country. China calls itself "The Middle Kingdom". For two weeks last summer this country truly felt like the centre of the world.

Almost a year later, the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing has now become a kind of Chinese Westminster Abbey - a national cathedral visited by thousands of tourists every day.

Since last summer, the two men who were meant to be China's Olympic stars have both run into problems.

The hurdler, Liu Xiang, has yet to recover from the injury which forced him to withdraw from his first race at the Games.

I was in the stadium when he pulled out. A legend has grown up that the crowd reacted to his withdrawal in "stunned silence." I can assure you that this was not the case. No-one in the stadium knew what was going on when Liu Xiang walked away from the starting blocks. We were all far too confused to be silent.

The 7ft 6in basketball player Yao Ming - perhaps China's most recognisable citizen - has now broken his left foot. Reports say that the injury may threaten his career.

In happier times in 2007, I watched Yao Ming walk through Tiananmen Square followed by a crowd of fans who barely reached up to his belt.

So, this country may now have to begin finding a new set of sporting heroes.

Communist Party Leaders

But it's already picked its next set of political leaders. In October 2007, I joined hundreds of reporters in the Great Hall of the People to watch the unveiling of the new nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the inner circle of Communist Party rulers.

James Reynolds looking through binocularsThe new Committee included two men - Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang - who are expected to rule China for a decade when the current generation of leaders steps down in 2013. The two spent most of their first appearance practising standing still on stage behind the president.

I would love to tell you what the Politburo members are like. But I really have no idea. China offers foreign journalists at best cursory access to its rulers.

During a reception for a visiting African leader, I once got into the same room as China's president, Hu Jintao. But I was sternly told off by an official for speaking during the signing ceremony. Presumably the sound of my voice might have broken the officials' concentration as they signed their names.

The closest I've ever come to an interview with a senior official was when I followed the Commerce Minister, Bo Xilai, down a corridor in the Great Hall of the People. He looked at me with a mixture of discomfort and surprise - you don't do doorstep interviews in China.

Whenever we ask for formal interviews, we're told to send our requests by fax. Chinese government departments seem determined to keep old-fashioned fax machines in business. Our requests are sometimes turned down. They're usually just ignored, as was the case in 2007, when we asked for one-on-one interviews with the entire Politburo. We had to try.

Our most exciting moment came earlier this year when the defence ministry actually returned one of our calls. An official told us that the ministry would consider our request for a trip with the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. Five months later, we have heard nothing more.

Very occasionally, government leaders meet reporters - but only on their own terms. In March, China's Premier Wen Jiabao throws an annual press conference which is so heavily scripted and planned that it's like going to see a (very heavy) play.

Sichuan Earthquake

Above all from my time in China, I will remember the people I met in aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake of 12 May 2008.

Fu XuezongThere was Fu Xuezhong who laid down a flower on the ruins of the school in which his 12-year-old son Fu Tian and said, "Son, your Dad will love you forever."

A year later, an official investigation found that no-one was to blame for the mass collapse of schools in the earthquake. Fu Xuezhong tells us that he believes his chances of getting justice for his son have now gone.

Li Tangmo and his sister QingyiFinally, I will remember 14-year-old Li Tangmo and his 7-year-old sister Qingyi, whose parents were killed in the earthquake. I met them at a shelter in a small stadium. They were being looked after by an uncle and were waiting to find out whether he and his wife would take them in for good.

Li Tangmo told us bravely that he and his sister would go somewhere else if their uncle and aunt didn't want to care for them. He sobbed as he spoke to us. Of all the stories I've covered in my time in China, theirs was the one which affected me the most. A year later, I don't know what's happened to the brother and sister - but I think of them often.

These, then, are the fragments of three years in China.

PS. Thank you for all your comments on this blog over the last year and a bit. I've really appreciated your thoughts.

A comical take

James Reynolds | 11:07 UK time, Friday, 12 June 2009

Comments (49)

Taking a ride through Chinese cyberspace to have a look at what people in China make of our coverage is often a pretty enlightening experience. A frequent opinion of the BBC - and sometimes of me in particular - is that we are a reactionary blackhands or imperialist running dogs (the phrase "running dog" carries much more punch in the original Chinese).

jamersreynolds_umbrella226.jpgOver the last year or two, a number of extremely well-edited videos kindly pointing out my many alleged failings as a reporter have also been posted on various websites.

The latest video - posted on China's version of YouTube - takes a slightly more comical angle of our recent encounter with Chinese security forces guarding Tiananmen Square...

Conflict of party and private lifestyles

Post categories:

James Reynolds | 09:45 UK time, Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Comments (57)

China has no direct equivalent of Hello magazine - the celebrity magazine in the UK in which readers are invited to gaze at public figures doing everyday things at home such as clinking champagne glasses whilst lying on thick rugs.

As a result, we know almost nothing of the private lives of China's leaders. That means that there's huge amounts of interest here whenever anyone gets any kind of peek into the off-stage life of Communist Party politicians and their families. There's particular interest when someone's private lifestyle appears to conflict with the frugal existence officially preached by the party.

So, internet users here have been poring over photos of Bo Guagua - who's the son of the Politburo member Bo Xilai. Mr Bo jr is a student at Oxford University (a Chinese youth organisation recently named him one of the 10 most accomplished Chinese people living in the UK.)

Pictures posted on social networking sites appear to show Mr Bo jr enjoying all the standard (and occasionally archaic) pursuits available to a student at Oxford.

Some comments from Internet users...

"How come a modest civil servant in China has that much money to send his son to Oxford? I remain perplexed despite much thought."

"It's certainly good to be an official."

"Oh well, what can I say."

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.