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#6: Holding China Accountable

Lingling Wei’s grandfather was an aide to Mao Zedong for 13 years. She went off to study journalism at Fudan University and New York University and returned home to China as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Until the Chinese government expelled her.

October 8, 2020


Lingling discussed her new book, Superpower Showdown, with us last summer.

Watch Assignment: China, our documentary series on the history of American journalists working in China.

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Lingling: My name is Lingling Wei. I'm a china correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Up until May 2020, I was based in Beijing covering China's economy. And I was expelled following the government's order in March, along with my colleagues at the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times in the Washington Post, all of the journalists that were expelled are American journalists. And as a naturalized American citizen, I was one of them. So right now I'm based in New York, still writing for the journal and still covering China.

Being a foreign correspondent in the People’s Republic of China has never been easy. Since the 1940s, these journalists have had to navigate government restrictions on travel, staged events, protecting their sources, the fear of having their press credentials revoked, and, in some cases, threats on their own safety. 

But in the last year, tensions have increased as the US and China have been involved in an increasingly hostile tit-for-tat battle of trying to control the foreign media organizations from each others’ countries. As you just heard, one of the people caught in the crossfire was Lingling Wei.

From the USC U.S.-China Institute, this is China Life. The podcast sharing the stories of people living and working in China. I’m your host, Craig Stubing.

Lingling was born in Jiangxi province in South East China, where Chairman Mao founded the People’s Liberation Army in 1927. Her grandfather participated in the Long March, which was a series of strategic retreats in 1934 to evade to Kuomintag army. Lingling’s grandfather ended up spending 13 years with Mao.

Lingling: I was told by, you know, some official counting in China that you know, of all the aids to Mao, my grandfather was with him for the longest time. So I grew up in a military family, very disciplined military family. And I actually grew up in a military compound. I would wake up every day, you know, to this loudspeaker in the compound blaring songs from the revolutionary era. And songs like Unity is strength. So yes, I grew up in that kind of environment and never really thought that someday I will be a journalist writing critical stories about the Chinese government for one of the, you know, biggest media outlets in America.

While Lingling’s mom was an officer and medical doctor in the army, she had always wanted to be a war correspondent. And that dream got passed down, it seems, as in the 1990s, Lingling headed off to Fudan University in Shanghai to learn journalism.

Lingling: Back then, you know, we took classes on Marxism and all of that, but we were also very fortunate enough to experience the liberal culture at Fudan at the time and... really also benefited greatly from the greater openness of China to the Western world, especially...the United States. I remember back then… We had many Fulbright Scholars, you know, at the university, who introduced us to some of the best work in American journalism. That's how I learned about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. And, you know, we could also read Wall Street Journal and The New York Times

Craig: Did you have any impressions of the US? Did your parents say anything about it was there you know, media, about America?

Lingling: Growing up, I definitely My mom and my, especially my mom told me many stories about my grandfather. And I remember he's only interaction with the Americans was back in the 1936 when the American journalist edgar snow, went to young on, you know, the base for the communists, and interviewed Mao Zedong, and other senior leaders for quite a period of time and wrote the book, Red Star over China...And my mom would tell me about how impressed My grandfather was, was edgar snow and thought he was very friendly. And, you know, during the Korean War, my grandfather would even tell the children, including my mother, that the war was really aimed at  the American imperialism, nothing against the American people. So that was the earliest knowledge I ever had about Americans.

I really started to get a better understanding of America, American values, and American way of life when I was in college.

And we also tried to learn English by watching Hollywood Hollywood movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Shara stone, you know, Richard Gere, you know, Oh, those, you know, films, movies, just just love that…. For me, that's the best way of learning English. So, and then I also loved the American sitcom growing pains. Right is that family I was so you know, numbered by, you know, the life the middle class American Life. You know, I was always very impressed when one of the girls you know what, a man should talk back to her parents you know, without any consequences. I was like, wow, if I ever done that, I probably my mom and my dad, I didn't know I can't even imagine how they would react to that.

I wanted to really, you know, go to America and experience America, you know what it's really like

I had been a reporter for state owned newspaper for about a year and a half. But as you know, writing stories for state owned newspapers, usually felt like a political exercise.

If I stayed in China, I could have a very stable job, very predictable. But I guess you know, like a lot of other of my peers. I also wasn't, you know, too satisfied with just being spoon fed. I you know, it just wanted to see the outside world, you know?

So I really wanted to be a real journalist,

And Lingling got her chance. In 1999, she was accepted into NYU to get her masters degree in business journalism.

Lingling: Later my professor at the time, NYU, Steve Solomon, he told me, I was actually the first student for that program. You know, because he just thought, wow, this is someone from China wanted to learn about, you know, American journalism, and so he was very interested.

Lingling landed in New York and spent the night at a friend’s apartment, who had come to the U.S. a year before her.

Lingling: The whole night. I was listening to the sirens. I was like, wow, there's a lot of sirens. So a firetruck. So ambulances study in New York City even still late at night.

Knowing it was her first time in the US, her professor had invited her out to his house in Princeton Junction, New Jersey.

Lingling: I got to see his whole family, his wife and two extremely talented children. Wow. And I visited his house and, you know, stayed for overnight. I was just like, so touched in just everything's perfect. Very, very friendly people and just warmed my heart. So I was off to a very good start. I immediately fell in love with the country.

Craig: Did middle class America meet your expectations from growing pains?

Lingling: Definitely. Definitely. I told myself a minute I stepped into my professor's house. I told myself this is the life I want to have.

Craig: Did you get a lot of questions about China that people, you know, were they curious, they probing you of like, what it's really like?

Lingling: Oh, absolutely. But the funny thing is that most people who asked me about that, or other international students

Craig: Really?

Lingling: The American students, they didn't really care too much about things that were going on in China. Like my best friend Han Pakistan. She was fascinated because you're trying to culture history was going on there. And the some of my British friends, there's American students seeing the cost of my, they're more focused on their own world. What's going on in America, and know that so that was different. So, you know, as time goes, went by, there was 30 to talk about the Americans don't really care about other countries. So it was happening outside world. So I started to get an inkling of that from taking classes from my classmate.

Craig: And I guess what might make it easier for you is because New York is so diverse. Right? Did you ever feel like an outsider?

Lingling: That's a great question. I feel like I never really did feel like outsider even early on. I mean, I, it just it's, it's just so diverse, as you say, you know, there's a lot of Chinese agents in New York City, you know, other countries and, and just this melting pot, right. So you felt like you're part of it? Actually. I remember. You know, I became American citizen in late 2010. And You know, went through this ceremony. It just all those emotions, you know, just experienced and all those emotions. I just remember. Like, I also felt like I really became American, like, a long time ago. And just the ceremony was great. It was you know, it was formal, and I got the blue passport. But by that time I already felt like American because they already felt I'm being just one of the one of them, my colleagues, my friends, and most people I know already made me feel very welcome, and you know, just never treated me differently. Oh, maybe, you know, he's, she's from China. Should she you know, we might not talk to her in certain way or the way never like that. They always just one one of them. So it just never felt like standing out in any way just truly are very much, you know, part of the city already.

Craig: Were you able to stay in touch with your family back in China?

Lingling: yeah, I tried to come back then. wasn't that easy like today, right. But still, you know, I always got those prepaid card from China towns really cheap. So I tried to call my mom and my dad at least once a week, every weekend

Craig: What did they think about you being there?

Lingling: Um, my parents were very proud of the fact that I was able to make a living in New York. I remember the day I got hired by the Wall Street Journal. That was fabulous. Some day someday in February in 2008 2008. So I joined the Wall Street Journal, my parents invited their best friends over and celebrated on my behalf. We're so proud of their daughter was writing for The Wall Street Journal. couldn't be more prouder that in my memory they did that three times in my life. First time was when I got into Fudan in 1993. They did a big banquet and celebrated that the second time was my wedding. Woman, my husband and I got married. I was the Chinese tradition. They also big wedding banquet. And then that was the third time when I got hired by the Wall Street Journal, they did big banquet celebrating that. So, yeah, they were very proud because they knew that. Obviously, the wall street journal is one of the best newspapers in the whole world. Everybody knows the wall street journal, even people in China, even though they can’t really, you know, get it every day. And also they knew that was what I always wanted. I wanted to be writing for One of the best newspapers in the whole world and, you know, just practicing good journalism. So, yeah, so that was one of their proudest moments.

I started out as a real estate reporter for the journal at the time was in the midst of the financial global banking crisis. So I did some, you know, a good work for the news wires covering housing market, you know, the collapse of the US housing market, and that really paved the way for me to get hired by the journal. And they thought commercial real estate was the next shoe to drop. So I was hired to cover commercial property. So that was early 2008. I joined The journal. And it's not until late 2010 you know, I was offered this job in China, and I obviously took it right away. I, you know, I that was my dream coming to, you know, really, I couldn't be happier at the time was like finally you know after 11 years in America, I was able to do what I can here for which was go back China and be a real journalist.

The Chinese state regulations really don't allow Chinese citizens to write for foreign media outlets. So having a blue passport enabled me to do that. So that was really, you know, why I became an American citizen, to be able to be back to China. I write about China for the journal.

So, right after I became I got my blue passport. The first thing I did was go to the Chinese Consulate in New York to apply for Chinese visa. Because my dad was having a birthday party I wanted to go back China, you know, celebrate with him. And then the there's this visa official at the Chinese Consulate in New York. Just took over my Chinese passport and cut off the right upper rep right corner. I just remember my tears just streaming down my face. I was like, that's it. There's didn't say anything, just cut it off like you're done. You're American now. No, you know, has nothing to do with that. Now go to the next window, apply for a Chinese visa. At that moment, I was very sad. But at the same time, I was also very proud. Because that felt like yes, you know, losing this red passport. The, you know, I was I'm still Chinese, right? I love the country. But I made it, you know, I became American citizen, and I can still go back China and can go back actually, to be a real journalist. So at the moment is the very mixed feelings.

Craig: Did you feel Like you were, like when he cut that piece off, like if you were he was cutting off a piece of your identity.

Lingling: A little bit like that. A very good way to put it. Yeah. And now I also felt like was I sort of like wished she could have showed some emotion. Like didn't have to do it in such a inhumane kind of way, like at least and you know, just just just, I don't know, I just wish she could be nicer. I just didn't expect her to be so businesslike. Just cut it, then go back to go to the next window like that. You know, but, but then I and then for the journal I went back to, I went to Beijing for the journal in the spring of 2011. Then I started this can Almost 10 years of experience of covering China, and with every passing day in China, I actually was living breathing Beijing every day. And I felt like I was more like American every day, because I really missed the, you know, what's it like to live in an open society to be able to write stories without worrying that I might offend someone and get myself or my family or my sources in trouble. You know, it just made me fell a little bit like real American every single day. So, the past 10 years is really interesting. The past 10 years of living in China really made me feel a lot more like American. I'm no longer a Chinese was the blue passport. I'm really a Chinese American.

Craig: That's really interesting. Yeah, really interesting because, you know, you, you had this dream of going back, you know, to your country, right where you grew up. And maybe you even felt more like an outsider going back to China than you did go into the US.

Lingling: Right? Initially, I was very excited. But immediately I landed in Beijing started work. The obstacles were so enormous, you know, so amazingly, every time I when I try to interview, especially a government official, or a government researcher or anyone had something to do with the government, they're like, look at you, like, are you a translator for the Wall Street Journal? are you what are you for the Wall Street Journal, I said, I'm a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. But you're a Chinese. Yes, I'm a Chinese but I can still be a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. And nobody actually believed me. And they looked at me they, when they talk, they when they agreed to talk to us to journal they were expecting to talk to like white American like white a foreigner right? But I am a Chinese you know it just the first two years are so hard. It took me a long time a lot of effort actually just links my own country man, that I'm real deal. I am a journalist and really I'm a journalist for the Wall Street Journal I can write I speak Chinese, but I can also write in English. So take me seriously, that was not easy. So from the start, it was like immediately just you know I was pulled down to reality, like, don't be too naive about, you know, things. So, um, yeah. You know, obviously there are other, more severe and higher obstacles like, you know, the lack of free press protection journalists and in the way they treat foreign correspondents, the the bullying The, the using, you know your press credentials as a leverage over over you all those things just a very hard place to do reporting

Craig: Do you think that the Chinese government treated you more unfairly or do you think they were harder on you because you were Chinese

Lingling: It definitely so because the fact that I'm Chinese is it sort of like a double edged sword. On one hand, I was able to really penetrate into the government because, you know, sometimes officials are not as wary of being seen talking to me because you know, I look Chinese it's not so obvious this guy's talking to a foreign person or foreign reporter. So, English and also obviously I understand how the system works and I speak the language you know, I can try to get their guards down. So that definitely you know, for bigger picture wise it really has helped me being Chinese tremendously, but obviously, it for some superficial reason relationship, right. Like, for example, some spokespeople for certain government agencies certainly expect more from you because they think they hope you can be more sympathetic is China's positions, right? Because you're Chinese, right? You should be more sympathetic with China should be more patriotic, but they just very few people really, especially in the official circle really understand what journalists are supposed to do. And, and, and and, you know, the what, what it means to be a journalist they they have very little sense of that. They just look at you, oh, you're Chinese. You should you should help China not hurt China.

Craig: Was that hard for you at all to go back and be so critical of where you grew up?

Lingling: Um, you know, obviously I didn't try to be critical just for being sake of being critical. You know, I knew, you know, what's the story, you know, our go is really to find out what's really going on and really tell our readers, the important stories, you know, the just, just like how we same way we cover the US, right. Reporters here cover us. Absolutely is harder for me, especially when, you know, sometimes, especially when confronted, being confronted with the the pressure, you know, from government agencies, and, you know, the kind of talks they gave you. Oh, sure. Be more sympathetic and that kind of thing. I know, in the back of my mind and probably the minds of my colleagues as well, there's always the concern that we could get kicked out. If, you know, the government really is pissed off by our coverage. So that's always a risk. But in the end, you know, we just, you know, I have to carry on our job is to hold the power accountable. So that's how I see the kind of journalism I do. I, you know, don't really care that this would offend you or not. If this is true, and it's something our readers have the right to know. Then we're going to write about it. So then, you know, it's it's definitely a very tough balance, you know, constantly battling, you know, the different kinds of, you know, pressures from, from basically everywhere and trying to stick to what you believe in and adhere to very high standards of journalism at the journal, so it's definitely very tough to do.

Craig: So, so your parents were, you know, so excited when you first got your job at the Wall Street Journal. How did they react to you coming into China as a foreign journalist? Were they just as excited? Yeah.

Lingling: They loved it. Their daughter was back. Right? So they were very happy, very excited. Just around happiness, but also, you know, especially my parents, my dad, especially my dad, he was also wary of the situation. I was saying, right? I was a Chinese but right And now writing for The Wall Street Journal. And some of my stories can be very critical of the government of the decision making process of the economy. But, you know, he never tried to interfere with what I do. The only thing he's done was helping me because helping me gain greater understanding of how the party works, how the system works. So I really have benefited a lot from my father's guidance, so make sure that our coverage is more balanced and nuanced.

Craig: So they were never like over dinner. Like, why do you have to write that story? Why did you have to be so mean? You know, couldn't you have just ignored that?

Lingling: No, no, never that kind of dinner conversation. Um, and also, sometimes I just didn't let them know what I wrote.

You know, I was sent to China by the journal to initially to specifically focus on the liberalization of China's currency and China's financial markets. Right? That was all the rage in the early 2000s. In in 2011 2012, you know, up until 2015 after Xi Jinping came to power a couple years after that, so, yeah, initially was so much hope, right, for Big Bang kind of reforms happening China, especially after right after she didn't even come to power. And he did try Hi to you did dabble in, you know, greater kind of liberalisation effort. But then now nothing's happening in the front in that regard. On the other hand country really go in turn increasingly inward looking right, more focused on fostering stronger state owned enterprises trying to fix all those financial problems. And, you know, most recently they're talking about focusing more on domestic market. So it was really amazing to experience all that, witness that and write about it. The 180 degree turn

Craig: that surprised you or did you get a sense of that coming before it happened?

Lingling: And it did surprise me. It did. I was expecting to read more about China's rise, economic rise, but all but the whole context of China becoming more open society, both economically and politically. And there were is a lot of initial signs of that actually happening. But obviously didn't happen. It actually went backwards. So just experiencing all that, and writing about in and and, you know, even in our book, quite a few passages of the changes. So I just felt like the past 10 years was really worth it. It just enormous experience from a just amazing journey, even for myself, living breathing, the changes that is going on in the country on a daily basis.

Craig: Well, that journey kind of came to an abrupt end right earlier this year, when the government expelled you and many other American journalists, right. What did it feel like when you found out You were getting kicked out. 

Lingling: I really experienced so many different emotions after the government issued the order to expel me and other my colleagues. Initially it was pure fear and the sense of helplessness. You know, as I said earlier, for the longest time, I thought of myself as this example of how people in China could benefit from close relationship between, you know, the US and China. I was fortunate to be able to attend your New York University to study journalism And then practice was one of the best newspapers. I got my American citizenship. You know, and I grew up, went back to China to practice independent journalism. So I was able to benefit so much from this close relationship. then fast forward to the time I was being kicked out. I just had all of sudden, I had become what some people in China called the bomb ashes of this intensifying political crossfire. Bomb ashes in Chinese are powerfully basically means collateral damage. So that was quite a term for me, personally in my life. It just broke my heart that I had to leave China. I had to leave my aging parents and take my son who's only six years old. This is just so huge disruption to his life as well and for my career as exponential You earlier my dream job had always been to practice journalism in China. So that's really a heartbreaking experience. But it is what it is. You know, my partner Bob was one of my first phone calls when the government announced the decision to expel us. And I told Bob that I was thinking about quitting, to remain China with my parents. Bob really played an instrumental role along with my family in convincing me not to make rash decisions. So in the end, as a mom, my mom told me, just like my grandfather, he did what he believed thing. He believed in communism. He believed in serving the party and helping build new China. And my mom told me, you should do what you really believe in. So, you know, for their generation, it was a quest just to survive. Just you know, forget about dreams. They were happy that they could just have a life without wars, without any political upheaval. Seeing their lives before me. I'm lucky enough, I still have a choice. So I chose to pack up and come back to New York and continue to write about China.

But unfortunately, I think more and more people, especially those who straddle the two countries, they may have to make a tough choice. Right? Especially if the relationship gets worse. They may have to choose China or the US. Because it might become really increasingly difficult, more difficult to, you know, keep coming back and forth between the two. It’s very sad.

Craig: Your grandfather, he was with Mao for 13 years you said.. and like you just said he dedicated his life to building a better China. Right? Do you kind of feel like you're doing that same thing as a foreign journalist, helping build a better China through, you know, revealing these truths through showing what's really going on?

Lingling: I definitely believe that the government doesn't, right? They think anyone who writes critical stories about China must hate China. It's still not true. Most of I, if I, if not all of them, but most of the American jaws expelled from China are So in love with the country, that's why we have spent so many years in the country already, you know, taking greater, great personal risks, writing about what really is going on, not because we don't like the country, or do we hate the country, not at all. It's just what journalists do. Right? We hold the powerful, accountable. We write about stuff, we think readers have a right to know. And we serve as checks and balances on on authorities. So that's the essence of journalism. It's very difficult for some government officials in China to really understand that they equate people writing critical stories was just what they think, you know, China haters, which is totally not the case and You know, China, that, you know, the government has said many times, China's a responsible word power and all that, then show it right? Be a grown up. Right? You should. If you really confident in your own system, the past you have chosen for your people shouldn't be so worried about people criticizing you and being critical of you. That's how society progresses. Right? So I just felt like there are still ways to go to China to really become a mature kind of superpower.

You can read Lingling’s reporting on the inside story of the US-China trade war in the new book that she co-authored, Superpower Showdown.