Reporters in China Struggle to Get to the Story

For journalists working in China, obstacles can include bureaucracy, the weather, and even Chinese etiquette. Sometimes the hardest part of the story is simply getting to it. Distance can be one of the less obvious challenges to reporting.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For journalists working in China, obstacles can include bureaucracy, the weather, even Chinese etiquette.

As NPR's Luisa Lim reports, sometimes the hardest part of the story is simply getting to it.

LOUISA LIM: As a reporter in China, a major occupational hazard used to be detention by the authorities. But in four years here I've only been detained once, although I've been followed by plainclothes internal security agents on a number of stories. But there were other, less obvious, challenges to reporting from China, like the distances involved.

One recent example: a trip to see a glacier melting on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. It took two plane journeys, two days driving, and what felt like an endless hike to 9,000 feet up a mountain to get within sight of that huge gray dripping mass of ice.

And then, of course, there was the matter of getting up close and personal with the glacier, another half hour scramble across the rocky, ankle-turning (unintelligible) stumbling behind the scientists I had accompanied. No big deal for those lucky fit few, but for this decidedly pregnant couch potato of a correspondent lurching through the downpour, never has the memory of my comfy office chair seemed quite as appealing.

And if getting to the glacier was difficult, getting back was something else. By then the rain had poured down for almost a week, loosening rocks and soil from the mountain slopes. Driving along roads with precipitous drops shearing off hundreds of feet to the riverbed below, small rocks bounced merrily down the hillside above us. That was the point at which we were instructed to get out of our Jeep and run through the rock falls. This went against all my self-preservation instincts. But apparently humans are more maneuverable than Jeeps, so we ran for our lives.

(Soundbite of barking dogs)

LIM: And then there was the wind and snow on the mountain passes. At one point our car sank axel deep in a snowdrift. Getting back to civilization was going to be great, I thought.

(Soundbite of geese)

LIM: Little did I know just a couple of days later I would go to a goose farm for a story on Chinese foie gras. A tour of the farm culminated in watching the poor geese being force-fed with a foot-long metal pipe shoved down their necks. Then, predictably, it was lunchtime for the humans, and suddenly I was the one about to be force-fed on large slabs of liver from the very geese I'd just seen tortured.

As the other guests smacked their lips and tucked into the huge wedges of foie gras, I felt nauseous. In China, where food is central to every social interaction, turning down a delicacy is a major snub.

Unidentified Man: (Chinese spoken)

LIM: Eat, eat, I was told, and admonished for wasting valuable food. Being overfed seems part of the job description here. But a more insidious problem is the ever-present bureaucracy. A few months ago I arranged to visit a coalmine. Permission granted over the telephone, the photographer and I arrived expectantly.

(Soundbite of miners working)

LIM: As miners in their big boots clattered around us, we were given the bad news. Sorry, we were told, no way. Our recording equipment and cameras were too dangerous and might spark an explosion in the coalmine. We negotiated. We argued. Eventually abandoning all dignity, I took to pleading and wondered if I should try crying.

Finally, we struck a deal. We could go down the coalmine in the cage lift. We could go on the train to the coal face, but that was it. We clambered into the lift and down we went, a thousand feet down into the bowels of the Earth.

(Soundbite of cage lift opening)

LIM: As the lift doors creaked open, the first thing I saw was a worker welding with an open flame.

LIM: So much for safety standards. And that's one of the lessons of working in China. People promise things they can't deliver. The frustrations are many and unexpected, yet for journalists it's a land of opportunity, where there are so many stories to cover and so little time to get to the mall.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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