Tales of the "News Assistants”

No. 38


My name is Hannah Zhang, a news assistant for CNN in Beijing and a recent graduate of New York University. 

Before joining CNN’s Beijing bureau in September, I interned at CNN in New York, where I wrote about the pandemic’s impact on tourism, luxury goods markets and medical suppliers. As one of the few Chinese natives in the newsroom, I pitched China-related stories, hoping to diversify CNN’s U.S.-focused coverage. But quickly, I realized that an American news outlet will not allocate enough human resources to tell global stories, especially when it relies mostly on domestic viewership for revenue.

Still, as a novice in the field, I relished the excitement of seeing my bylines on an international news website. It was almost like what I signed up for when I started in journalism a year ago. Except at the time, I was covering China from the outside. But deep down, I hoped to bring to English readers fresh insights into China’s economy and culture from inside the country. So, I returned to my home country and soon landed a job, like many fellow Chinese Storytellers, as a news assistant for an international media company’s Beijing bureau.

At CNN Beijing, my job involves monitoring Chinese news, finding sources, setting up interviews for correspondents, calling up government agencies and translating spokespersons’ remarks at press conferences. On one hand, my job is essential to any international media’s China coverage, and I am proud to shoulder the responsibility of translating not only the Chinese language, but also China’s culture and society for a global audience. On the other hand, being a news assistant also means that I no longer have the freedom to pitch and write stories on my own; government regulations mandate that Chinese nationals can only perform “auxiliary” work for foreign media in China. 

After six years of living in the United States, I yearned to return to my homeland and share her stories with an international audience. But by now, I’ve realized that it would be difficult for me to fully realize my dream as a news assistant. Returning to the U.S. is still a viable option, but will I find opportunities to report on China there?

As I am navigating the challenging yet fruitful journey of becoming a proficient storyteller covering China, I want to ask fellow news assistants — current and former — what is (was) the most rewarding part of the job? Where do we go from here? I would also like to ask fellow Chinese Storytellers who are reporting on China from afar, what’s the biggest challenge of your job?

Hannah Zhang

The Inbetweeners 夹缝中人

Kou Aizhe, founder, Gushi FM

I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done today without my training in foreign media.

Up until 2017, I had worked for seven years for international media in Beijing. I mainly worked for Swedish Radio and CTV and also took up fixer gigs for various other media.

The best part of working for international media was that we could cover any topics we wanted. That allowed me to peek into every corner of China’s society and to better understand people. The news assistant job was also a great training ground. It taught me how to find the right people to talk to for a wide range of stories in the shortest time possible. 

But we all knew there was no career path for a news assistant. I could never become a full-fledged journalist working for international media. I did not receive credit for my work. I didn't even know how important my work was for each news report. In other words, I did not have ownership over my work. 

“Am I capable of telling a story on my own? Do I deserve credit and respect?” I kept pondering over these questions throughout my tenure in international media. In 2016, my boss at CTV’s Beijing office quit. After she left, the headquarters in Toronto kept me on their payroll without giving me assignments. I decided to do something fun.

I'm a podcast fan. I’d always wanted to create a storytelling podcast in Chinese. So I produced the first episode, The Mistress “Killer” and Her Sisters, in that period. The story’s main character, Zhang Yufen, established a women-only detective agency after her husband’s series of affairs. These women helped each other find their husbands' mistresses. Zhang’s story was in the foreign press, and I’d interviewed her for CTV. Most foreign media put this story in the context of the nationwide anti-corruption campaign because almost every corrupted official had one or more mistresses. But I was curious to know why some Chinese women in her generation were willing to sacrifice their lives to save toxic marriages; it didn't make sense to me. And so, I told their stories on their own terms in my podcast. When my friends, most of whom were journalists, listened to the episode, they loved it. 

Kou Aizhe (right) interviews scholar Liu Hong for Gushi AM (courtesy of Kou Aizhe)

Feeling encouraged, I kept up my side gig. Gradually, it became a full-time job. I created Gushi FM (Story FM) in 2017, a podcast dedicated to telling ordinary Chinese people’s stories. So far, the show has aired 477 episodes. It’s been a sheer joy to be an audio storyteller. I know I can practice audio journalism for the rest of my life. This is my thing.

I'm a lucky guy. I can do things I truly love, and I’ve built a team of members who share the same enthusiasm for audio storytelling. What’s more rewarding is that over a million people regularly tune in to our podcast and love our show. But I wouldn’t have accomplished all of this without my training in foreign media. I believe every Chinese news assistant shares the same wish to start something on their own, a piece of work perhaps, with their name in the credit. To them, I would say, don’t be afraid to chart a new path.

Lily Lee, news producer, CNN

Working as a news assistant has helped shape my values and who I am today.

I used to work as a news assistant, then later a news producer for several foreign media outlets in Beijing. I now work as a news producer for CNN in Hong Kong. Among my fellow Chinese news assistants, I am considered one of the “old hacks”, still surviving and fighting on the frontlines. 

I landed my first foreign media job by accident in 2007, working as a news assistant for a Swedish newspaper in Beijing. It was this job that introduced me to the brilliant invention called a VPN, and soon another brilliant invention called the Great China Firewall. It was earth-shattering. New, different and difficult information overwhelmed me. For the first time in my life, I began to re-examine the world around me and question things that I used to take for granted. It was the same process many of us have gone through. And luckily, I had a great mentor when I was reshaping my worldview — the Swedish correspondent, my then boss and now a lifelong good friend. We had numerous intense discussions and arguments about foreign media’s China coverage. We still have those discussions every now and then, although they are less stressful. Even today, whenever I’m in doubt at work, I go back to something he said in one of our earlier conversations: “Airplane flies. No news; Airplane crashes. News.” This may be the simplest way to explain why foreign media always focuses on the so-called “negative coverage” of China. But it doesn’t justify everything. 

Lily Lee (left) films in a Terracotta Army pit in Xi’an. (Courtesy of Lily Lee)

I still have my doubts. I think mainstream Western media are partly responsible for China’s deteriorating and sometimes demonized international image. And the Chinese government certainly is not helping, either. So I try my best to explain complicated China stories to foreign colleagues to avoid oversimplifying our reporting. I’ve made it my mission to squeeze more nuanced and diverse China stories into mainstream Western media’s China coverage. 

Covering China for foreign media inside China as a Chinese national is uncomfortable. It can be rewarding for many reasons, and yet also disastrous. Has my journalism had a meaningful impact on my people and my audience? It’s hard to assess. But the job has definitely had a meaningful impact on me. 

Marrian Zhou, U.S. reporter, Nikkei Asian Review

You will always be a faceless person among “them,” never part of “us.”

I have not worked as a news assistant in China, but I’d like to share my experience as a Chinese American reporter covering China from the U.S. These days, it means I am constantly walking on eggshells. A random Twitter user might reply to your post about Asian American representation and ask if you’re a supporter of the Chinese Communist Party. Your relatives in mainland China may constantly “correct” you and call you “brainwashed” by the Western media. Unless you kick your objectivity to the curb and pick a side, you will always be a faceless person among “them,” never part of “us.”  

Stuck in the fault lines between the world’s two largest global powers in recent history, covering China as a Chinese person in English-language media means endlessly asking yourself if your own reporting is fair, and fending off the “white guy takes.” It means speaking up against anti-Asian hate crimes and calling out Trumpist politicians, who see your concerns and objections as your inner CCP. Yet you’d rather keep trekking in the mud with a “Commie” label on your forehead than return home, because at least you can fight to have a voice here and believe in having a voice. 

Chinese citizens can’t cover China independently for foreign media in China because of government rules. American newsrooms don’t have enough Mandarin-speaking reporters to cover China. I often wonder, if journalists who speak the language and understand the country aren’t given enough opportunities to cover China, what would happen to English-language media’s China coverage? I imagine it’d create a vacuum for misinformation and further divide Americans and Chinese. To avoid this situation, the U.S. and China must normalize journalism visa policies, and American newsrooms need to hire more Chinese-speaking reporters to cover China and Chinese American communities.

Shen Lu, reporter, Protocol | China

It took me six years to finally believe that I may find a career in journalism.

I briefly worked as a “news assistant” in China before moving to the U.S. in 2016. As someone who has covered China from both inside and outside its borders, I share many of Aizhe, Lily and Marrian’s conundrums. I am forever grateful for my brief stint as a news assistant/producer, as difficult as it was. It allowed me to speak to people from all walks of life — without technological barriers and time differences — and to learn about the paradoxes and contradictions of my country in ways that no other job could offer. And I observed and navigated the power dynamics between foreign journalists and Chinese “assistants,” between local bureaus and headquarters, between white people and people of color, which inoculated me from cultural shocks when I later worked in the U.S. As soon as I felt the glass ceiling for news assistants, I left to pursue a master’s degree in the U.S., wide-eyed, hoping to be free from restrictions and fear and to finally have my own bylines.

It turned out that covering China from the U.S. as a Chinese national for English-language media was not only challenging, it was also almost impossible up until this past two years. Restrictions manifest themselves in new ways, and the fear never goes away. American newsrooms are not hiring enough Chinese Americans, let alone Chinese nationals who face tremendous — and in the Trump era, disastrous — visa complications. A recruiter at a global news agency once told me that they had hit their “Asian quota.” China is too narrow a beat for most journalists who look like me and wish to carve out a career in the U.S.

In the circle of Asian journalists in the U.S., there’ve been occasional discussions of whether China reporters pigeonhole themselves. I often think these conversations assume a certain privilege. Chinese journalists who would love to and are perfectly qualified to report on China are not even getting those jobs yet. For many years, the few opportunities for Chinese nationals to work in the U.S. news industry were at wire agencies, until the past few years, after China became a bigger story. There have been more freelance opportunities and even a smattering of staff jobs for China-focused journalists. To me, it was the light at the end of the tunnel, especially during the pandemic, compounded by a trade war, when U.S.-China relations deteriorated and anti-Asian violence rose by the day. 

My sense of mission for inclusive storytelling and to humanize Chinese people deepened as the world grew more divisive. I knew I was uniquely positioned to tell complex stories that could help bridge cultures and connect audiences as China and the U.S. continued to close channels of communication. But to some extent, I also took refuge in covering China as rising racial injustice and xenophobia in America further alienated and marginalized me. I started my current job in January, and for the first time in my career, I feel validated to report on China — more specifically, on China’s tech industry and global impact — in a different tone and from a different vantage point, with great support from a crack team. It feels like a dream come true. It took me six years to finally believe that I may find a career in journalism. Of course, in this uncertain media environment, I savor this moment, one story at a time. And I hope it takes less time for fellow Chinese storytellers to find their own career paths. 

Writers: Hannah Zhang, Kou Aizhe, Lily Lee, Shen Lu; Editor: Shen Lu; Copy Editor: Yi-Ling Liu.

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