Jaime FlorCruz was a 20-year-old student of Philippine College of Commerce, now Polytechnic University of the Philippines, when he went to China for a study tour during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in August 1971. With the suspension of the habeas corpus by the late President Ferdinand Marcos, FlorCruz and 14 other student leaders decided to stay in China, for fear of being arrested, if they returned to the Philippines.
What happened over the next four decades became a legacy of an accidental Filipino journalist, who reported for the largest US media companies from one the world’s most secretive nations back then. FlorCruz witnessed how China, a slumbering giant in the 1970s, transformed into the planet’s second largest economy and now a world power.
He went on to become CNN’s Beijing Bureau chief and the longest serving foreign correspondent in China before he retired in December 2014.
FlorCruz was at the right place, at the right time, for a Filipino journalist. US media companies were looking for an English-speaking correspondent, who could explain what was happening in China, the most populous communist nation back then. FlorCruz, who met Shanghai Mayor Jiang Zemin before the latter became president of China, was the ideal choice. He joined the biggest US media companies such as Newsweek, Time magazine and eventually CNN, where his reports were broadcast globally.
“I became an accidental journalist. Even though I was the editor-in-chief of our school paper in Philippine College of Commerce, I had never imagined myself becoming a professional journalist,” FlorCruz tells members of the Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines at Ayala Museum in Makati City.
PCC is the same institution that produced well-known activists such as spiritual leader and former presidential candidate Eddie Villanueva, former Bayan Rep. Satur Ocampo and former House minority leader Carlos Padilla.
FlorCruz describes his first trip to Beijing as similar to visiting Pyongyang today. “That time going to China in 1971 was like going to North Korea now,” he says.
He arrived in China with a group of 14 other student leaders supposedly for a three-week study tour. The study tour, however, became a 12-year sojourn and a 43-year career in China. Through the initial years, FlorCruz and four others were accommodated by their host China Friendship Association.
His group wanted to study, but the schools and universities were closed to foreign students then, so they chose to work. They moved to the countryside, in Hunan province, bended their knees, stretched their arms and became farmers.
At first, Jaime FlorCruz found his new life in the countryside romantic. “But then romance kicked off very quickly, because farming was hard,” he says.
He had also worked for a fishing corporation for two years, where they would go out to high seas for five or six days at a time on two trawler ships, pulling a huge net. “China then was very spartan, unlike now..,” he says.
After a few years of digging the land and sailing the sea, he decided to learn Mandarin at the Beijing Foreign Language Institute. As he was still blacklisted in the Philippines then, he later enrolled in a four-year course in Peking University to earn a degree in Chinese history. Among the students in his class was current Premier Li Keqiang who studied law.
As a history student, FlorCruz keenly observed how China slowly opened up to the world, starting with allowing foreign students to take national examination in universities, allowing Western pop group Wham to hold a concert in Beijing and welcoming Coke as a new beverage.
As he was about to finish his course in Peking University, foreign news organizations started to open bureaus in the mainland. Adept both in Mandarin and English, he was hired by Newsweek magazine, one of the first media companies to open a bureau in Beijing.
His big break came on Dec. 18, 1981 during the trial of the “Gang of Four,” a group led by Mao Zedong’s widow, Jiang Qing and three other ideological allies. They were accused of plotting to assassinate Mao and pull off a rebellion.
The trial of the “Gang of Four” was considered the trial of the century in China. It was hard for journalists like him to cover the event, because media coverage was restricted by the government.
At that time, FlorCruz was also an English teacher in a school where one of his students was the son of a presiding member of the Supreme Court in the trial of the Gang of Four. His student trusted him enough to tell him over-the-table discussions he had with his father at home. FlorCruz was able to deliver credible, detailed news of the trial.
He also broke the news of Jiang Qing’s suicide, days before it was reported by Chinese media.
“[It was] the first time I got my byline in Newsweek for two consecutive weeks. It’s a big story and that’s how I started my career as a Chinese journalist,” he says.
He joined Time magazine’s Beijing bureau in 1982 and eventually served as bureau chief from 1990 to 2000.
He recalls his many first encounters as a journalist. He had the chance to interview then Shanghai Mayor Jiang Zemin, who would later rule China as president from 1993 to 2003. FlorCruz recalls Jiang Zemin calling him little brother.
He says the media played a very important role in depicting China’s image as it opened up to the world.
Perception about China changed starting when former US President Richard Nixon visited the country in 1972. China was shown to be adopting Western influences. However, the negative image of China came back, when the 1989 Tiananmen massacre happened.
“When 1989 happened, we were all shocked,” says FlorCruz. “Because many people taught that China has greatly changed, not realizing that China was changing at its own phase with all the difficulties and the pain and the 1989 was the part of that painful change.”
FlorCruz witnessed how China recovered from the turmoil of Mao’s era, the cultural revolution, Mao’s death, the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997 and the 1997 Hong Kong handover. He also covered major events such as the outbreak of SARS epidemic or severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2002, the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, the Beijing Olympics also in 2008 and the ethnic unrest in Tibet and Xianjiang.
He also recalls a “neck-breaking” interview with Yao Ming, a seven-foot-six basketball player who played for Houston Rockets in the National Basketball Association.
“I have seen China evolve from Mao’s era to open China,” he says. “So what makes China tick? I think one is decentralization.”
FlorCruz says the press in China has also evolved. “I must also say China’s media has been changing compared to what it was 30 years ago, when I started as a journalist. It is a much more energetic, diverse media but the main state-run media is still controlled by the government,” he says.
“While the government still controls the media and censors the Internet, it’s getting harder and harder and in spite of the censorship, there’s still a lot of diversity now,” he says.
FlorCruz says the prosperity enjoyed by China today has a huge impact on culture, environment, religion and gap between rich and poor.
“Gone were the days were everybody was equally poor,” he says. China has recently surpassed the US as the country with most number of millionaires.
China, the largest trading partner of the Philippines and most Southeast Asian countries, also affects the world, economically. “China moves market nowadays. Gone were the days 40 years ago when no one cared about what was happening in China. In recent months, we saw how the market moved up or down because of what was going on in China,” he says.
“Whatever China does will affects us. If China catches flu, we will sneeze,” he says.
In December 2014, FlorCruz retired as bureau chief of CNN Beijing. He says journalists in China today have easier access to information, as the government started holding press conferences.
“My challenge in working in China as a journalist was how to get accurate, timely information especially in the first two years of working there. China was so closed off to the outside world, and also closed off internally even among themselves. It’s a very opaque system,” he says.
After living in China for almost 43 years, FlorCruz says it seems that his one foot remains in China. He is now finishing the draft of his first book about his personal account as a student in Peking University.
“I’m in transition, but my one foot is still in China, because I am researching and writing a book on my experiences in Peking University in 1977 to 1982,” he says.
FlorCruz says his classmates then now hold senior positions in government while others became captains of industry, professors, bank officials and officials of think tanks.
His first book is set to be launched early next year. He is also drafting an autobiography, which he hopes to finish late next year.