Dispatches: Louisa Lim on China

Louisa Lim covers China for NPR. From her home in Shangai, she shares her experience reporting from a country where the government plays a large role in shaping information offered by the media.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, a South African man who once battled apartheid now joins the fight against a new enemy - crime.

But first, it's time for our regular Dispatches segment, where we check in with NPR correspondents from across the world. Today, we go to China. NPR's Louisa Lim has reported from that country for many years now. The subjects she covers are as vast as the nation itself. Sometimes her stories are heartbreaking, sometimes heartwarming, but always deeply human.

Louisa Lim joins us from her home in Shanghai to talk about what it takes to be a reporter in a country where the government plays a large role in shaping the media. Welcome, Louisa. Thank you for joining us.

LOUISA LIM: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Louisa, we have many stories about the Chinese government's interference with speech, about Web sites being shutdown and things of that sort. What about you as a foreign journalist? Does the government try to monitor what you write? Do they follow you?

LIM: Well, it is getting easier to operate as a foreign correspondent in China. As of the beginning of this year, there were new regulations that were put in place. In the past, if we wanted to leave our base, I would actually have to apply for permission. So things are getting easier.

MARTIN: You were detained, though, in 2003.

LIM: Yeah. In 2003, I was detained. But in China, just because of the way the system used to work, being detained was not a very major event. Most foreign correspondents working in China at that time would get detained from time to time. In most cases, they just would keep you for a few hours and tell you off, and in some cases they would threaten you and ask you to write a self-criticism. But they wouldn't want to create a major diplomatic incident by expelling a foreign correspondent. So in most cases, they would just try to get you to confess that you have done something wrong.

MARTIN: Let's talk about some of the recent stories you've covered. One was about China's growing air pollution. Now, earlier this year you went to - is that Linfen?

LIM: Yes, that's right.

MARTIN: Which has been the most polluted city in China for the past three years. This is how you described it.

LIM: It's half past seven in the morning on the streets of one of China's most polluted cities, Linfen. But frankly, it feels more like the middle of the night. And that's because the sky is still dark and cars still have their headlights switched on in order to navigate their way through the heavy haze of pollutants which darkens the air here. People are getting to work now, and I can see them cycling passed me. Many are wearing facemasks in a desperate attempt to protect themselves against the very air they breathe.

MARTIN: Louisa, that sounds terrible. What was it like for you there?

LIM: I have to admit, it was really a disgusting place to go in terms of air quality. From the minute that we arrived there, we could feel a difference in the air. I mean, your eyes began to sting. Your throat got very scratchy and there was a sort of acrid burning smell in the air. And also you could - the visibility was so low that in some cases, you could only see, you know, a couple of hundred feet - not even that at certain times of the day.

And actually, I had an incident there when I checked into the hotel room, and they'd just given this room where there was a mahjong table and evidently people had just left. They'd been playing mahjong and they'd been smoking a lot, and the entire room was full of cigarette smoke. So I wasn't really thinking. I went to open the window, and when I opened the window, the smell of the air, the pollutants outside was so much worse than this room full of cigarette smoke, that I actually had to close the window again and just suffer.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.

LIM: I think it's really the only place that I've been where the pollution is so bad that you can see it sort of hanging in the corridors of the hotel, this sort of white haze.

MARTIN: My goodness. Well - you know, and now I'm a little worried, Louisa. Did it have an effect on your health?

LIM: Well, actually, yes. We spent three days there. I went with my assistant, and we both got quite sick. I'm an asthmatic, and I had pretty bad asthma for about 10 days afterwards. And my assistant ended up in a hospital with pneumonia. It was very cold at that time, as well. It was January. And at one point, it was about minus 10 degrees outside. But she was sure that the pollution had also contributed to her lung infection.

MARTIN: No doubt. No doubt. The glamorous life of a foreign correspondent, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIM: Absolutely. It's not what it's cracked up to be, I can tell you.

MARTIN: I see. Now let's talk about another story that you covered. This is a very moving one. You recently visited a town where family planning officials had been forcing women to have abortions as late as seven, eight and nine months into their pregnancies. This is what one of these families told you.

Ms. WEI LINRONG (Resident, Baise City, China): (Through Translator) When it was born, I asked the doctors if it was a boy or a girl. The doctor said it was a boy. My friends who were beside me said that baby's body was completely black. I felt desolate, so I didn't look up to see it. The nurses dealt with the body like it was garbage. They wrapped it up in a black plastic bag and threw it in the trash bin.

MARTIN: This must have been a very difficult story to get. How were you able to do this?

LIM: You know, we had to be very careful about the ways that we went about doing the interviews. I mean, the first thing was, in this situation, I think you have a responsibility, really, to make sure that the people you're interviewing know that there could be consequences when they talk to you.

MARTIN: You identify them? You use their names?

LIM: Well, in most cases, I ask them if they want their names to be used. I mean, in this case, the main interviewees did want their names to be used because they knew that they'd already spoken out and that any officials would know exactly who they were by the descriptions and their own personal circumstances. And, I mean, to a certain extent as well, there is a measure of protection once the story has been aired in talking to the foreign press because these are stories which no domestic media in China will cover. And so, really, from their point of view, the only way to get a story out is to get covered by the foreign press.

MARTIN: Let me just pause and say I think your reporting in this area is very important and I, you know, I applaud you for - and respect the effort that you've taken to do a very difficult, you know, story like. And I think it was done with great sensitivity, so please, you know, if I could just say that.

Now, last that I want to talk about is the gold farmers story. First, tell us who are the gold farmers? Why are they called this?

LIM: Well, gold farmers are people who work in, what some people say, are online, sort of, virtual sweatshops. I mean, basically they work - kids playing videogames. And they basically - they'll play one particular game - and most often, it's World of Warcraft, which is one of the most popular games in the world.

And they'll play it all day long, say, 12-hour shifts. And their job is basically to perform a certain task over and over again, like killing a monster in order to make virtual gold. And then that virtual gold, they'll sell on in real money to people, game players overseas or game players in China who don't have the time to perform these sort of repetitive tasks.

MARTIN: You know, I was going to say, this is like a teenage boy's fantasy. But who on earth is paying somebody to play videogames? Excuse me?

LIM: Well, you know, surprisingly, there are quite a lot of gamers who are willing to pay. I mean, surveys among the gaming community had showed that 20 percent of people playing certain games actually buy virtual gold because they just, you know, they want the benefits that gold conveys, but they can't be bothered to actually go around getting it. But there is also a very active anti-gold farmer community, who are very opposed to gold farming in general and feel that it's cheating and shouldn't be allowed.

MARTIN: That's happening. That's intense. Well, Louisa, before you go, I've got to talk to you about "American Idol". And, you know, Americans are obsessed with "American Idol", which just concluded its sixth season here in the U.S. And I understand that there are versions of "American Idol" all over the world, including in China. Tell me about the "American Idol" in China.

LIM: Well, these talent contests have come to China reasonably recently. I think the first really big one happened in 2005, two years ago, and it was called "Super Girl". And it got a massive reaction, that the final was watched by 400 million people, apparently.

MARTIN: Wow.

LIM: And the winner, who was a young woman called Li Yuchun, who wasn't very girly - she wore jeans all the time, and it was quite cool. And she started a whole new trend. But she got 3.5 million votes in the final. And this started a lot of speculation online and in blogs that isn't it interesting that the winner of "Super Girl" can get 3.5 million votes? That's 3.5 million more votes than the president of China, Hu Jintao.

MARTIN: Oh my god. Well, so…

LIM: So it started a lot of talk about democracy and televised democracy.

MARTIN: That's fascinating. Well, thank you, Louisa. Thanks for keeping us up to date.

LIM: Thank you.

MARTIN: NPR's Louisa Lim joined us from her home in Shanghai.

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