40 Years in China: From Stranded Activist to International Journalist

Shooting a panda story for CNN. This was a rare opportunity since the panda could not keep still for more than 10 seconds.  (Photo courtesy of Jaime FlorCruz)

Shooting a panda story for CNN. This was a rare opportunity since the panda could not keep still for more than 10 seconds. (Photo courtesy of Jaime FlorCruz)

If anyone had suggested that I would someday be interviewing China’s President Jiang Zemin for TIME magazine, or sitting down with former U.S. President Bill Clinton for a CNN exclusive interview, I would have said, “You must be joking!”

I did dream of possibly becoming a journalist when I was a teenage student, but that was that—pure wishful thinking. When I first came to visit China in 1971, it never occurred to me that, years later, I would be one of the international correspondents interviewing global statesmen and covering momentous events in China. I never imagined that I would be a witness to the creation of the much-vaunted Chinese Miracle.

I became one by a quirk of fate.

It all started on August 21, 1971, when I embarked on a three-week tour of China upon the invitation of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. China then was a virtual black hole and a diplomatic pariah. Few countries kept official diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic and few people traveled into the mainland. Upon returning from China, many of these adventurous visitors became instant pariahs or targets of an anticommunist witch-hunt at home.

Like most other countries, the Philippines did not have official relations with the Maoist nation. Our Philippine passports then were stamped with an official warning which stated that the document was “not valid for travel in Communist-controlled states” of the Soviet Union, Cuba, Korea and China, among others.

To avoid being stopped at the airport, our tour group had to fly out of Manila unnoticed. We left in batches.

On August 20, 1971, I sat in seat 19A of Cathay Pacific flight CX900 from Manila bound for Hong Kong. There, I met up with the 14 other members of our group. Led by Chito Sta. Romana of the Movement for a Democratic Philippines, an umbrella organization of progressive groups, we formed what we called the “Philippine Youth Delegation” to China.

We found ourselves stranded in China. Our three-week tour had turned into an open-ended period of exile.

We were a motley group of youth leaders and young professionals, mostly belonging to what were then considered “radical” groups: Roz Galang, a star reporter at the Manila Times; Leo Rimando, a professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños; Nizam Abubakkar, a Muslim student; Carlos Tayag, a Benedictine priest; student leaders Eric Baculinao, Grace Punongbayan, Rey Tiquia, Lito de Dios and Dean Jorge Bocobo; women activists Vicky Segui and Marita Almoradjie; labor activist Bert Silva; and my fellow college editor Victor Manarang.

At that time I was a senior at the Philippine College of Commerce, later renamed the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, majoring in advertising. I was the outgoing editor in-chief of Ang Malaya (The Free), our college paper, and president of the League of Editors for a Democratic Society (LEADS), a national organization of campus journalists. We were among the rabble-rousing shock troopers of the youth movement in the Philippines.

Lackluster Youth

Years earlier, I had been the least likely person to fit that description. I grew up in the mellow town of Malolos, Bulacan, the fifth of six children born into a middle-class family of technocrat parents. I had a happy childhood. We lived in relative comfort and bliss.

I was never a super-achiever in school, although I did well enough in the high school entrance examinations to be placed in the pilot class of the biggest public school in our town. I did not excel in academics, but I took an active part in extracurricular activities, including the Boy Scouts, the student council and the student paper, where I served as sports editor.

Like many of my contemporaries, I simply wished to finish college, land a steady job, find a pretty and preferably rich wife, and drive a red Mustang. I was good enough to get accepted into an all-boys university in Manila, one of the best in the country and also the most expensive. The college attracted many bright minds, including sons of rich and well-connected families. Some of them actually drove themselves to school in red Mustangs!

Vicariously, I felt I was approaching the pinnacle of life. Actually, I was totally out of place in the elite school, a probinsyano who was more comfortable thinking and speaking in the vernacular rather than in English, the medium of instruction. Socially, I was as awkward as Forrest Gump.

To fit in and make friends, I joined the college paper, the college choir, and the varsity track team—all at the same time. I also squeezed in time to join dance parties and go on dates. In the end I fared well at socials but struggled in academics. I flunked math and English and was kicked out of school after one school year.

I found myself down as quickly as I had gone up. I was shamed and devastated. I had let down my family, which prided itself on putting its children through top schools. For various reasons, my parents decided to enroll me at the Philippine College of Commerce (PCC), which was known as the poor man’s college. It was better known then for producing secretaries and accountants than lawyers and doctors.

The first time I watched the “East Is Red,” a song-and-dance Chinese propaganda film that was shown in our college campus, I snored midway through the two-hour film.

It was at PCC where my young life took another sharp turn. The years I spent there, 1967-1971, were turbulent times. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were locked in a vicious Cold War. China was convulsing through the Cultural Revolution even as it was inspiring revolutions in the Third World countries.

The Vietnam War was raging. From San Francisco to Paris, from Munich to Manila, young people were taking to the streets to call for peace and to demand change. In the Philippines, our homegrown student movement percolated in the late 1960s and came to a boil in early 1971, in what came to be known as the First Quarter Storm.

I took part in the FQS. Initially we protested over such quotidian concerns as poor school facilities and unjustified tuition hikes. Later we took up national and international issues. We opposed the Vietnam War and the Philippine government’s connivance in it. We protested against the existence of U.S. military bases in the Philippines and the killing of Filipinos “mistaken for boars” inside them. We denounced police brutality, kidnappings, forced disappearances, media censorship, corruption, and cronyism. We warned against the looming military dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos, whom we accused of plotting to perpetuate himself in power by resorting to martial law.

PCC became an epicenter of student activism. Soon I found myself on the frontline. During street demonstrations, I endured searing police tear gas and brutal beatings. At one protest rally, I sustained cuts on the head and chin when a police officer hit me with a rifle butt while he pinned me down on the asphalt road. That night, the police locked me up in jail for allegedly resisting arrest and possessing deadly weapons—all trumped-up charges.

Such police brutality changed the trajectory of my life. I became a student activist and a youth leader. Supporters called us “catalysts of change” and “hope of the nation.” The Marcos regime labeled us “troublemakers” and “communist agitators.”

I was a beginner on China. I had read a few books about it and had heard a Filipino reporter and an entrepreneur talk about their visit to China months earlier. I even kept a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book in my drawer and had thumbed through it a few times. But I knew little about the 800-million-strong nation that was then commonly known as Red China.

The first time I watched the East Is Red, a song-and-dance Chinese propaganda film extolling the greatness of Mao and the Communist Party that was shown in our college campus, I snored midway through the two-hour film. Still, like most of my contemporaries, I was curious to see the communist nation in the making, not really knowing what to expect.

In the morning of August 21, we took a train from Hong Kong to China. At the border, we crossed the Luohu Bridge into Shenzhen, a sleepy fishing village in Guangdong province, China’s underbelly bordering the British-controlled colony. From there we took another train to Guangzhou, and after a quick city-tour of the capital city we took an Ilyushin jet plane bound for the Chinese capital.

We arrived in Beijing at night, totally engrossed in the unique and heady experience.

Upon arrival at the airport, we were greeted by a phalanx of grey-haired Chinese officials and ruddy-cheeked Red Guards.

Waving copies of the Little Red Book, they shouted slogans hailing “China-Philippines friendship” and professing “support for the oppressed peoples of the world.” We responded with an inspired rendition of the Internationale in Filipino.

We were immediately infected by the militant spirit of the Red Guards. I shook hands with them as if we were long-lost comrades. In fact, we looked like youths from different planets. My hippie-inspired hairdo was nearly as long as the bobbed hair of the female Red Guards. My attire—a striped shirt, bell-bottom pants, and a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses—were juxtaposed with their white cotton shirts, baggy pants and the ubiquitous Mao badges.

Beginning of Exile

In the first few days of our Beijing jaunt, we were oblivious of what was going on back home in the Philippines. Within a few hours on the night of August 21, it turned out, grenade blasts had ripped through an election campaign meeting of the Liberal Party at Plaza Miranda, killing a few in the crowd and seriously wounding scores of people, including several top leaders of the political party seeking to unseat the party of President Marcos.

FlorCruz working on farm in late 1970s  (Photo courtesy of Jaime FlorCruz)

FlorCruz working on farm in late 1970s (Photo courtesy of Jaime FlorCruz)

That same night, President Marcos declared a nationwide state of emergency and suspended the writ of habeas corpus, thus allowing the police to arrest and detain anyone indefinitely. A wave of arrests ensued. Among those arrested were student and youth leaders like us.

Weeks later the Marcos administration released in the newspapers a “wanted list,” which included some members of our tour group. The political uncertainty at home was enough to put our return on hold, at least for some time, as our families and lawyers feared that we would be arrested upon our return.

Ten of our fellow tourists were able to leave China for home after three months’ wait, but five of us ended up staying put. “Wait until further notice,” our lawyers advised. A year later, however, in September 1972, Marcos declared martial law—followed by another wave of arrests. Another year later, our Philippine passports expired. We found ourselves stranded in China. Our three-week tour had turned into an open-ended period of exile.

We were shocked and frustrated. We were in our prime, “just like the sun at eight or nine in the morning,” as Chairman Mao used to describe the youth. I was twenty years old, full of vigor and idealism.

Where in China could I channel my youthful energy and idealism? And how? We found ourselves in a totally unfamiliar place. We did not speak Chinese. We were homesick and lonely. We had little pocket money.

To earn our keep and make better use of our time, we volunteered to work on a state farm in Hunan province. There, we joined a production team in planting rice, feeding pigs and picking tea leaves. Initially, the idea of working in a Chinese commune—learning first-hand about how communism works— sounded romantic.

Soon enough, however, the romance wore off. Farm work was tedious and backbreaking. Even though we were never short of food and housing, we lived a spartan life. To fight the cold and damp winter, we learned to use primitive wood-stoves. Once or twice a month, we were treated to hot showers in a city guesthouse an hour’s drive away.

Worse, life on the farm was monotonous and boring. Aside from reading and playing ping-pong, we had little recreation during our spare time. There was a small black-and-white TV set in the recreation room—the only set in the whole farm—but its fuse burned out soon after we arrived, and it was never repaired.

FlorCruz doing manual labor in a farm commune in Hunan province  (Photo courtesy of Jaime FlorCruz)

FlorCruz doing manual labor in a farm commune in Hunan province (Photo courtesy of Jaime FlorCruz)

In 1973 we moved to Yantai in Shandong Province to work in a fishing corporation. Along with Chinese workers, I was an apprentice on trawler boats, which sailed the Bohai Sea and beyond to catch fish, prawns and other seafood. We typically sailed for five to seven days on each trip, enduring back-breaking work and lonely nights.

With few English books and limited overseas news to read, I turned to studying Chinese. I talked with coworkers to improve my spoken Mandarin. To expand my vocabulary, I copied by hand words and phrases from dictionaries and various publications.

Our Chinese hosts tried their best to provide us with all our material and logistical needs. However, they could not cure the homesickness that we acutely suffered. At times, when things looked bleak and seemingly hopeless, my fellow exiles and I consoled each other: We shall overcome this. We are younger than Marcos. We can outlive him.

Outliving Marcos

And we did. Except that we did not just outlive Marcos, we made ourselves better people. In the fall of 1974, I enrolled at the Peking Languages Institute (now known as the Beijing Languages and Culture University) and earned an associate degree in Chinese language and translation. From 1977 until the spring of 1982, I attended Peking University and earned a bachelor’s degree in Chinese history.

During this period, I taught English part-time to a group of Peking University professors who were preparing to do post-graduate studies or fellowships overseas, as well as to English majors at the Beijing Teachers’ College.

Briefly, I became a local celebrity after teaching several English songs on national television as part of the weekly CCTV program “English on Sunday.” I was also a member of Peking University’s varsity basketball team, which topped a citywide tournament in Beijing and placed third in the national collegiate championship in 1981.

My long experience in China, coupled with the bilingual skills and cross-cultural knowledge that I acquired during my exile years, turned out to be premium credentials, which helped me land my first reporter’s job.

In 1980, while I was in my senior year at Peking University, Newsweek hired me as a “news assistant” in its newly opened Beijing bureau. My main job was to assist the bureau chief in research and translation.

In December that year the “Gang of Four,” including Chairman Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, was put on trial in Beijing. At that time, Newsweek’s bureau chief happened to be on an extended Christmas vacation outside China. In desperation, Newsweek asked me to file reports on what was then considered the “trial of the century.” For two consecutive weeks, the magazine ran stories about the trial with my tiny byline tacked on the bottom of the articles.

That marked the beginning of my career as an international journalist in China. Over the years, I’ve covered the China story for TIME magazine (1982-2000) and for CNN (2001-present).

FlorCruz working at TIME magazine in the 1990s  (Photo courtesy of Jaime FlorCruz)

FlorCruz working at TIME magazine in the 1990s (Photo courtesy of Jaime FlorCruz)

Reaching my professional goals was never a cakewalk. It took me six years to get hired as a staff correspondent of TIME. I had to break glass ceilings. I had to overcome professional barriers, political biases and racial stereotypes. After all, I did not have an Ivy League degree, I did not attend a journalism school, and English was not my mother tongue. I had to work doubly hard to prove my mettle. I had to show consistently that I could be as good a professional as everybody else.

I was lucky, too. I found mentors and friends in the Beijing-based press corps who accepted me as a professional peer and appreciated what I could uniquely contribute as a journalist and China-watcher. Likewise, my Chinese acquaintances have accepted me as a friend who just happens to work for the Western media, and as someone who can be critical about China without being cynical.

When I started my career as a journalist in the early 1980s, China was a mere “hardship post” covered by two or three-dozen foreign correspondents. Now, over 700 reporters from some 300 media organizations are covering what has become one of the most important stories in the world. The China correspondent’s job has now become one of the most coveted jobs in journalism.

It has been a privilege and a pleasure to watch China’s remarkable transformation and to report on it from a ringside seat. This would have remained mere wishful thinking had I not made that fateful trip to China 40 years ago. I had turned a bad thing into a good thing.

Reprinted with permission from Not On Our Watch: Martial Law Really Happened. We Were There. Taguig City: LEADS-CEGP 6972, Inc., 2012.

FlorCruz interviewing 2002 NBA No. 1 draft pick Yao Ming  (Photo courtesy of Jaime FlorCruz)

FlorCruz interviewing 2002 NBA No. 1 draft pick Yao Ming (Photo courtesy of Jaime FlorCruz)


Jaime “Jimi” FlorCruz started his career in journalism in Beijing as a stringer for Newsweek through 1980-1981, joined Time magazine’s Beijing bureau in 1982 as a correspondent, then served as its bureau chief from 1990 to 2000. In 2001 he joined CNN, where he is currently both correspondent and Beijing bureau chief. Jimi lives in Beijing with his wife, Ana Segovia, with whom he has two children, Joseph and Michelle.