1980s China Journalist Larry Johnson – Video Interview [imported from Seattle Guanxi]
Welcome to Seattle Guanxi’s first video interview. We hope to do many more of them. Our first is with Larry Johnson, a prominent Seattle-based writer who worked as a journalist in China in the 1980s and was part of a lot of firsts at the time. I meant to only interview him for about three minutes, but he had so many good things to say that the interview lasted nearly nine minutes. Video is below as well as a full text transcript, if you prefer to read instead of watch.
Beth: I am here today with Larry Johnson who has some really good work experience in China in journalism. Larry, first of all, can you tell us your background and give us your spiel about yourself?
Larry: Sure. I was a journalist in California and I got an offer to work with a magazine in China called “China Reconstructs,” and it was a one-year contract, and my wife and I both actually got an offer to do that. We went. This was way back in 1987, and we were there from ’87 to ’88.
Beth: I know this is a really loaded question, but what were kind of your strongest impressions of China at the time that you’d like to share?
Larry: Well, the most stark contrast between China and the United States at the time was that it was very regulated, authoritarian. We, for example, we were the first journalists working for this magazine, it’s called China Reconstructs, that we didn’t have a socialist background or a communist background. We were the first just regular journalists hired by the magazine. But, one of the things they did was they kept really tight control over you, and they watched you at all times, and the people where you lived, there was a hotel called the Friendship Hotel where we stayed, and the maids, everybody there, cleaners, they were all reporting to the government: what you did, where you went, who your friends were, especially who your Chinese friends were. So it was a pretty authoritarian atmosphere.
Beth: So did you get to travel in China at all for your work?
Larry: We did. We traveled all over. And this was another first. They allowed us to go as reporters and photographers for the magazine to Tibet, for example, which was pretty unusual to get to go to Tibet at that time. And also, we went to some of the Special Economic Zones they were setting up, starting in the ’80s, to bring in investment from overseas. We went to Fujian province, and that was pretty exciting. It was a thriving industrial area, bringing in factories from Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong. So, we traveled and wrote and took photos for the magazine quite a bit.
Beth: At that time, and in China, how did you get your story ideas and find people to interview?
Larry: Well, it wasn’t hard coming up with story ideas, because China was one of the main topics for magazines and newspapers all over the world. In fact, before we left, we set up a little news service of our own, where we sent stories back to about half a dozen big newspapers across the country. And they would suggest ideas, and in our everyday work for the magazine, we’d come across story ideas that were great. It was a great environment for journalists at that time.
Beth: So did you work at all with people who would be seen as PR people, or was that kind of nonexistent at the time?
Larry: It was funny. They were all rolled into one. Journalists in China were seen as PR people, basically, at that time. One of the funny stories for when I was working for the magazine was one of the stories I did for them, they assigned me to go out and do a story on an old China hand, someone who had been in the country for years, from overseas, and helped them get established in various fields. This was a very successful businessman. So I went out, and I interviewed him at his hotel, took photos, came back, wrote the story up, sent it to my editors, and they immediately came over and said, “Wait a minute, you have your byline on this story. You should have his byline.” So, it was like, “What? I’m a journalist. I just interviewed this guy. And you want his byline on the story?” You know, and I’d done PR before, so if they’d said, “This is going to be a PR assignment,” I would have understood it, but I was really kind of shocked and offended that they were treating me as a journalist as a PR person for this guy. And it eventually ran, despite my protests, under his name.
Beth: I also wanted to ask you if you’re familiar with the term “guanxi.”
Larry: Oh, of course.
Beth: How do you define guanxi, because it’s one of the words in our blog title?
Larry: Well, guanxi at the time, just basically bribes, and still is. I mean, I haven’t been to China in years, but I understand that guanxi is still, kind of an everyday thing. For dealing with, especially, government officials, you want to take them presents. That’s another nice name for it. You give them presents, and you’ll get what you want. When we traveled, and we traveled quite a bit, we would hire someone to get our tickets for us because they knew how to work with guanxi. We didn’t. We’re used to going up, getting in line, paying our fare, and getting on. Well if you do that, at the time we were there, you would never get a ticket to a plane or train, or you wouldn’t get into hotels or anything. So we’d hired someone, they’d give them a little extra, so they could give to the officials some present, in this case, money, and you’d get a really nice ticket, better than most people.
Beth: One thing that’s kind of famous about Chinese journalism is the blur between advertising and editorial content, and bribing journalists and things like that. Did you ever get bribed yourself as a journalist or was it different because you were a foreigner?
Larry: I think it was different because I was a foreigner. No one ever offered me bribes. They knew I was working for the Chinese magazine as a quote: “foreign expert,” and so I was never approached, never offered anything. Actually I went to a travel fair. A bunch of travel agents in China. They suggested that I do things like come to their area of the country and write a story about it, and they would pay certain fees, you know. But they do that in this country, too, they offer to pay your plane travel or train ticket or whatever to do a story on it. So it didn’t seem any different than what I was used to in the United States. But I know, my colleagues, they were offered money and talked about it a little bit, and we talked about the differences between journalism in this country and the way it was done in many other countries overseas at the time.
Beth: So I see that you have copies of magazines with you. Would you like to show them to the camera?
Larry: I do. This is a copy of the magazine when we were working for it in 1987. It was called “China Reconstructs,” and it was founded by Madame Sun Yat-sen, originally. And then in 1998 or 9, maybe 1989, they changed their name to make it sound more modern. “Reconstructs” sounded like the old communist idea, so they changed it to this, and it became a little more modern. More use of color, a little bit better magazine. It’s still basically a PR magazine for the country. I would not call it a journalism magazine. It’s more finding good things about the country to write about, good things, good people, and putting on a good face to the world.
Beth: This has been really great. Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share?
Larry: Well, I think, I would just encourage people to do things kinds of things, to go somewhere overseas, especially in countries where journalism, public relations and public affairs work is considerably different than what we have in the United States, just to get the difference and kind of understand how other people operate.
Beth: Lastly, how can we find you online?
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