A Conversation with Evan Osnos: My First Story in China

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 first story he reported on in China. The subject might surprise you. Transcript is below. (Youku link)

EVAN: I think the very first China story I did, this shows you where I suppose my instincts lie, it was about Cheng Guangcheng.

This was about seven years ago. It was 2005. I heard there was this blind lawyer holed up in his house down in Shangdong and I went down there to go see him and I got to the house. I got to the front door and then these guys kind of muscled me away.

It’s just an amazing thing if you think about the fact that he’s been living in that situation ever since then. It tells you a little bit about why he ran and why he came to Beijing.

One other interesting fact about him. So the story was about the fact that in 2005 there was, in the area where he lived, a one-child policy that was being implemented in a way that was abusive. It was violating the laws.

And there were people who were being detained in a building in the middle of town in order to force their relatives to consent to forced abortion and forced sterilization. Basically, if you were about to have a second child and the local family planning officials said that wasn’t allowed, then they would take your mother or your aunt or your father and they would detain that person until the young woman paid either the fee or agreed to this procedure.

So, I went to the middle of town. This shows you what China was like in 2005. I mean, it’s the same in some ways now. I went to this town and they’re up in this building. Everybody knew where the little jail was, the black jail. And I’m standing down on the street and they’re calling down to me and they’re saying, “We’re up here. We have to pay $390 if we want to get out.”

And I’m saying, “How long you been up there?”

And they’re saying, “I’ve been here two weeks.”

And somebody else is like, “I’ve been here a month!”

The thing that’s amazing about it was life was going on around them completely uninterrupted. People had priced this into their understanding of China and what was required in order for China to function and grow.

Now, if you look at what’s happening last week, two weeks ago. A woman named Feng Jianming, 23 years old in Shaanxi, who was subject to a forced abortion. And that story became a sensation. I mean it was the story on the Chinese Internet. It was forwarded a million times; there were thousands and thousands of comments.

Her experience in and of itself was not unique by any means. There were a lot of people that could relate to it. But seven years ago, which is nothing, that experience of those people was completely cut off from everything else. Nobody else knew that that was happening. Nobody else knew that there were other people going through the same situation.

The sheer fact of the Web. It’s a banal observation to point out the networking effect that the Internet has had in China, but I don’t think you can underestimate it. It’s profound. It’s made all of those people who were forwarding that message see themselves as a part of a community that didn’t previously exist.