A Conversation with Evan Osnos: The Craziest Thing I’ve Done for a Story

In June 2012, Project Pengyou and NorCap China Internships hosted a talk with Evan Osnos, China correspondent for The New Yorker.

In this video, Evan talks about the strangest thing he’s had to do as a reporter in China. Transcript is below. (Youku link)

EVAN: When I was working on a piece, I went on a long walk in Sichuan in 2007, for about a month, to write about what it felt like to walk across Sichuan.

I was very interested in that experience. But the problem was that we knew we were going to run into police along the way who weren’t happy to have us there. And in anticipation, my friend Matt who was walking with me, said, “We gotta learn some songs for the Long March,” because this was the Long March route and we needed a good explanation when we got stopped.

Sure enough, one day we’re standing there next to a dam, this huge hydropower project. You know that freaks people out. In the United States if I’d been taking photos of a dam I’d probably be in Guantanamo right now.

So there we were, we’re taking photos of the dam and a couple of cops come rolling up to us in their extremely tiny van.

And you have to think about the world from their perspective. They pull up and they see this guy with a big nose and yellow hair and they’re just like, “Ugh, what do we do with this guy?” We don’t want to break him, we gotta get him out of here. We gotta get him out. I was in a really remote area. They just don’t want to deal with a foreigner.

And they said, “You can’t be here. You really can’t be here.”

And I was like, “Well, technically I can.”

I always had copies of the new regulations on the media and the regulations were very clear. They said that foreign media could go anywhere they wanted.

And I was like, “Well, technically we’re okay.”

And they were like, “I don’t know this thing. Get rid of that.”

And then we tried plan B. We said we’re going to out-red them. We’re going to be redder than them.

We said, “We are marching the Long March. Look at us, we’ve got sweat and grit and mire. We are following in the footsteps of Chairman Mao and right now we will sing with you.” We will sing “Hong Jun Bu Pa Yuan Zheng Nan.”

So we sang “The Red Army Is Not Afraid of the Long March” and we got about halfway into the first verse—a rousing rendition. We’re trying to get these guys to sing with us.

And they realized, of course, either this man is unbalanced or he’s going to make us sing songs we don’t know the words to.

So they said, “Go on your way. Get out of here.”