Reporting from China
An interview with journalist Doug Sovern
By Miriam Weisfeld
Doug Sovern is a San Francisco-based journalist with KCBS Radio. In 2005, he accompanied Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on a trade mission to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Mike Daisey entered China on a tourist visa, and he largely avoided the government’s censorship of foreign journalists. However, Doug was part of an official press corps and so he experienced China’s control of the media firsthand. He recently described his experiences to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Director of Artistic Development, Miriam Weisfeld.
Miriam Weisfeld: What brought you to China in 2005?
Doug Sovern: I cover politics and I accompanied Gov. Schwarzenegger on a trade mission. I was on a journalist visa for two weeks, and then I stayed another week on a tourist visa.
MW: What was the Chinese government’s goal in bringing you there?
DS: To sell more Chinese goods in California and get more California investments in China, and show how they’re modernizing. And to that end, they wanted us to see what they wanted us to see. They didn’t censor us at all, but they kept a very close eye.
MW: Where did they take you?
DS: Events with high-ranking officials: a banquet at The Great Hall of the People, a sewage treatment plant, The Forbidden City, Mao’s Tomb, a series of conferences with commerce officials. They shepherded us to where they wanted us to go. They were very careful. We couldn’t always go where we wanted to go: in factories, we had to stay in the prescribed area. We weren’t allowed access to normal people and when we strayed, someone would herd us away unless they had been officially chosen to speak with us.
MW: How did they enforce that?
DS: It was so obvious that I was being followed. We all were. They would be at a safe distance. They barely made any effort to hide that they were following us.
MW: Who followed you?
DS: Men. Government officials in business dress.
MW: How did it feel to be followed?
DS: It wasn’t threatening, but it definitely wasn’t funny. You get used to it, and we made jokes. But it is a little creepy. It felt chilling: like the Chinese version of Big Brother was watching you. I realize it’s a dictatorship. But I still report things as I see them, describing the government meetings. We all had government minders and we were always been followed. Twice I could tell my hotel room had been searched. Our calls were monitored.
MW: Did you have access to the internet?
DS: Email was definitely monitored. I was able to do anything I wanted on the internet, but someone was monitoring it. There were weird glitches. I’ve been emailing reports from all over the world: Nepal, Africa, and there were inexplicable hangups in my emails. I realized, they’re intercepting the audio and listening to it. I was never told that’s what they were doing. They didn’t block websites. I think it all went through—they didn’t censor it, but they wanted to hear what we were saying.
I’m a radio reporter and I produce my stories on my laptop as MP3s. I realized government censors were monitoring my reports before they would go through. I reported that on CBS radio, and somebody called our newsroom in San Francisco saying I shouldn’t speak harshly of the Chinese government. I don’t know who called. He had a Chinese accent. We never determined if it was a concerned Chinese American, or someone from the Chinese Consulate?
And then I was told by one of the tour guides in China that I should be careful about what I was saying or I wouldn’t be allowed back into the country after leaving the mainland for Hong Kong. So this time I got a tourist visa and it got approved. So either it wasn’t well coordinated or it was a bluff.
I kept doing reporting but I didn’t backtrack to the same places. I did reporting on the tourist visa. I went to an orphanage and talked to common people on the street to flesh out reports I’d done earlier. You’re scared while you’re doing it, but no one knew.
MW: Looking back, what do you wish you could’ve spoken with Chinese people about?
DS: The economic disparity was incredibly striking. There were booming cities with luxury cars—I thought, who’s buying a Maserati in Shanghai? Not far from major cities, people are living in mud huts. I wished I’d had more opportunities to visit with people and ask how this came about. Most of China is still in the stone age and a tiny but growing faction is booming and modernizing. Little things, like I got a massage at the hotel in Shanghai and it's these very shy, quiet, intimidated looking country girls. And she was a good massage therapist, and I said who should I ask for to find you, and she said number 164. She couldn’t tell me her name, just her number. I wanted to ask: where do you live? How do they treat you? How much are you paid?