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Photo by Jim Laurie.

Assignment: China -- USCI series on American reporting on China

How do we know what we know about China? The images most Americans hold of China were shaped by news coverage. Our multipart documentary series Assignment: China focuses on the journalists who have described the remarkable changes in China since the 1940s.

Release Date: 05/31/2014

From the barriers of language, culture and politics, to the logistical challenges of war, revolution, isolation, internal upheaval, government restrictions and changing technology, covering China has been one of the most difficult of journalistic assignments. It’s also one of the most important. For over sixty years, what American correspondents have reported about China has profoundly influenced U.S. views of the country, and the policies of successive American governments.

Interviews with these journalists are the core of Assignment: China which is illustrated by archival news footage and other images. This includes previously unseen home videos and other materials. In addition to interviews with those whose work was featured on American front pages and broadcasts, the series includes interviews with Chinese and American officials who sought to manage coverage of China or of specific events, such as Nixon’s historic 1972 trip.

Mike Chinoy, the distinguished former CNN Asia correspondent and USC U.S.-China Institute Senior Fellow, is the writer and reporter for the series. He is assisted by USCI Multimedia Editor Craig Stubing and USCI staff and students, who handle much of the logistics, research, transcription, videography, and editing. Clayton Dube conceived of the project and supervises it.

Assignment: China segments have been screened for universities and organizations across America and China and elsewhere in East Asia. The response from educators, students, officials, and the general public has been enthusiastic and positive. The films are available free of charge at our site and at our YouTube channel. We welcome your comments and hope you’ll invite others to view Assignment: China.

Many individuals and organizations have helped make this series possible. They have given generously of their time and energy, helped us unearth essential materials, guided us to invaluable sources, or provided the financial support necessary to sustain the research, travel, and technical help necessary to produce these compelling films. We thank each of these people and institutions for their help (and we list each in the credits for each segment). We invite you to consider joining them in supporting our efforts (click here to donate, please be sure to designate the U.S.-China Institute's documentaries, or contact us).

Five Assignment: China segments are currently available online. Two more have been completed and will be posted in the coming weeks. Principal interviews have been conducted for the remaining three segments, which should be finished over the course of the next year.

The Chinese Civil War

The Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had originally cooperated in seeking to wrest control of China from landlords and foreign forces. In April 1927, they split and began a decades-long civil war, interrupted only in part by Japan’s invasion. With Japan’s surrender and the failure of the American mediation effort, the two sides resumed their struggle in late 1945. This segment of Assignment: China examines efforts by journalists to report on this final four years of the war and its impact on Chinese society. It features archival photos and interviews as well as interviews with some of those who brought news of this battle for the world’s largest country to Americans via newspapers and magazines, news reels, and radio.

USCI website | Chinese subtitled version 中文字幕版
USCI YouTube Channel | Chinese subtitled YouTube version 中文字幕版

China Watching

This segment of the USC U.S.-China Institute series on the work of reporters for American news organizations looks at the period 1949-1971, when most Americans could not visit the People's Republic. Though some non-U.S. citizens reporting for American organizations did manage to get into China, most reporters had to watch what was happening in China from Hong Kong.



USCI website | Chinese subtitled version 中文字幕版
USCI YouTube Channel | Chinese subtitled YouTube version 中文字幕版

The Week that Changed the World

President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip ended more than two decades of Cold War hostility. American and Chinese forces had fought each other in Korea and the United States had refused to formally recognize Beijing’s government and did recognize Taipei’s. From the founding of the People’s Republic until the Nixon trip, American news organizations had virtually no access to the world’s largest and most rapidly changing country. America’s most famous journalists clamored to go with the president, though most had no idea what they might find, telling us “it was like going to the moon.”

USCI website | Chinese subtitled version 中文字幕版
USCI YouTube Channel | Chinese subtitled YouTube version 中文字幕版

Documents: Getting to Beijing | Getting to Know You

Opening Up

With the restoration of U.S.-China diplomatic relations in 1979, American news organizations were finally able to base reporters in China, something that even the Nixon trip hadn’t made possible. By this time, of course, China was embarking on stunning economic and social reforms. Private enterprise was being permitted, foreign investment pursued, and controlling births was made a government priority. There were also stirrings of dissent, which the party-state moved to stifle. Though influential, the reporting corps was small. Delighted to be covering such sweeping changes, reporters sometimes chafed at the restrictions imposed on them by the Chinese government and their own editors and by the technological challenges of reporting from a developing country.

USCI website | Chinese subtitled version 中文字幕版
USCI YouTube Channel | Chinese subtitled YouTube version 中文字幕版

Tiananmen Square

In 1989, students marched in cities all over China, but it was the demonstrations in China’s symbolic center, Tiananmen Square, that captured the attention and imagination of people worldwide and especially in the United States.The American press corps in China had grown since the first journalists arrived with the establishment of diplomatic relations, but it was still relatively small compared to today. This segment  focuses on the stories of journalists who struggled to understand what was happening in Beijing that spring and to help Americans get a sense of the issues and forces at play. We hear from them about the political, cultural, physical, and technological challenges of covering the demonstrations, how they were being seen by the larger society, and the response of the party-state. We hear how they sought to document the extent of the violence and we learn the story behind the “tank man” image that has come to symbolize the demonstrations and their violent end.

USCI website | USCI YouTube Channel

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