Opinion & Analysis

To Tell the Truth: Life as a Chinese journalist

What does it mean to be a Chinese journalist in New Zealand, sometimes being critical of the Chinese government and - by proxy - sometimes the Chinese people? Portia Mao reflects on almost two decades in the industry. 

It was my childhood dream to be a writer and I have fulfilled my dream in New Zealand by being a journalist for 18 years.

I am very grateful for my father’s advice when I went to a university in China. He suggested I should study English language and literature instead of Chinese language and literature.

He said it was risky to be a writer in China as he had seen many Chinese writers commit suicide or be prosecuted during the Cultural Revolution simply because they spoke the truth. He told me to try to study English well, and go abroad when it was possible. I followed my father’s advice and fortunately I was able to immigrate to New Zealand in 1999.

I couldn’t help but study media at Auckland University when most new Chinese immigrants coming to New Zealand around 2000 chose to study computer science, business or accounting - it was so much easier to get a job.

I graduated with a Masters degree, and my first job was working for the Chinese Herald from 2004 to 2008. The Chinese Herald was basically a tabloid newspaper with around 70 percent of its content being ads, and the front page was fully covered by all sorts of ads when I was working there.

I proposed writing front-page stories, and the owner gave me the nod. Very soon, my feature reports were published on the front page of the Chinese Herald. Very soon, the Chinese Herald stood out among all local Chinese language newspapers for its front-page reports on current affairs.    

As an immigrant from a background with no democracy, I have been particularly interested in political reporting. I have written copy on every general election and Auckland local body election since 2004. It is a good way for me to learn how democracy works. The articles also help the Chinese newcomers learn about New Zealand’s democratic system, helping them become well-informed citizens and inspiring them to participate in New Zealand’s democracy.

It was interesting that I was interviewed by One News, the English language media with an interest in how the Chinese language media encouraged Chinese voters to cast their votes in the elections shortly before the general election in 2005.

To tell the truth 

As a Chinese language journalist, to tell truth is not always easy, as the pressure could come from anywhere. To tell the truth could be challenging in the Chinese language media as Chinese politics strongly influences the local Chinese community. I have become used to the occasional criticism from Chinese readers with a strong sense of nationalism. But a particular message from one Chinese lecturer at Massey University was beyond my expectations: “We are Chinese coming from the same place (country) and we shall maintain the dignity of our motherland and consider its future.”

What does it mean for a Chinese Kiwi journalist to maintain the dignity of the motherland? Does it mean avoiding writing something that may upset a foreign government?

I started with English language media in 2007. It is pretty hard when the topic relates to China.

In 2008, I helped TVNZ's "Sunday" programme with a story about Kiwi businessman Danny Cancian, who was sentenced to 5 years in a Chinese prison for killing a Chinese man in self-defence.  I managed to talk to Danny’s defence lawyer, the judge, the victim’s family member, and even the officials of the Foreign Affairs Office of Canton Province. They all politely declined an interview with TVNZ.   

One of my friends who was a journalist in China said to me: “the Chinese are reluctant to cooperate with Westerners, except for economic purposes because of the control of the government.”

Case study: Bad Milk

The most unforgettable working experience for me was travelling to China with TVNZ's "Sunday" team for a report on the  Sanlu milk scandal. Chinese parents with sick babies poisoned by tainted baby formula powder agreed to be interviewed when we left for China, but changed their minds when we arrived due to fear.

I would never forget what a nurse said to the Chinese parents in Nanjing Children’s Hospital: “Look, you are allowed to speak to the foreign journalists, but be careful, you will be responsible for every word said.”

Finally, we managed to interview a young couple in the western part of China whose baby son died from drinking Sanlu milk powder but unable to get any compensation from the government. That was because their baby died at home instead of in a hospital.  I met the couple at the Xi'an Quality Inspection Bureau where they were waiting for results on tests on the Sanlu formula milk powder their baby son had been drinking before he died.  

We were all astonished when they saw the melamine level in the formula milk powder was 1748mg /kg, while the melamine level accepted by the Sanlu Group was just 20 mg per kg, a regulation made by the Sanlu Group.

No wonder the father of the baby who died  shouted in the interview: “They [Sanlu] are killers! ”

The "Sunday" item touched many Kiwis hearts and they donated around $4000 to the poor Chinese victim family.

The program won the Best Current Affairs Reporting for a weekly program at the 2009 Qantas Film and Television Awards, and was also nominated  for Best Investigation program of the year.

Test result of melamine level in the Sanlu milk powder | Photo: Supplied

In 2012,  I went to China with TVNZ's "Sunday" team again. In Zhengzhou, the central part of China, we interviewed Lina’s mother. Lina was five years old and she was one of the 300,000 babies who drank the tainted milk formula powder. Her head was relatively smaller than children who had not been in contact with the Sanlu formula. 

I have kept in touch with Lina’s mother since then and I happened to chat with her on WeChat last October when it was Lina’s 14th birthday. She sent me a video of Lina smiling at me without saying anything. I was told Lina couldn’t speak properly and she couldn’t do 2+3 = .. without counting on her fingers. A medical assessment showed Lina’s intellectual level will stay at the age of a six or seven-year-old for the rest of her life.  

Victims of the tainted Sanlu milk powder are teenagers now and some of them continue to suffer from that melamine poisoning.

I wrote Lina’s story, and it was published on Stuff and in the Dominion Post newspaper earlier this year, thanks to the editor Anna Fifield. 

I am very grateful to New Zealand for offering me the chance to follow my dream. The 18 years of experience as a journalist has been a great learning journey for me.

Portia Mao, John Hudson (r), and the TVNZ team with the Qantas Film and Television award in 2009 | Photo: Supplied

 - Asia Media Centre