Dori Jones Yang: Girl from Ohio, China Correspondent, Historical Novel Writer (May 7, 2012)
If you had been interested in China, especially American business in China, in the 1980s and 90s, you must have come across this name many times: Dori Jones Yang , Hong Kong bureau chief, later Seattle bureau chief, for the Business Week magazine, covering China. You must have also wondered, as I did, who she was, how come she was so good, and where she got that Chinese name Yang.
But you never would have guessed that China was nowhere on her horizon as a young Dori started out in college. However, not only has she ended up an expert journalist on China, she also had quite a Chinese romance.
Today, Dori Jones Yang is still busy writing, not as a journalist, but as a historical novelist. I don't know how she does it, from writing non-ficiton to fiction, but you can find out on her website. With the coming release of her next book, Son of Venice, a sequel to Daughter of Xanadu, I was lucky to have got an interview with her, in her beautiful home on Eastside. Here is what you can call an "interview of the interviewer," in three parts:
Part 1. From European History Major at Princeton to Business Reporter in Hong Kong
Wen: You grew up in Youngstown, Ohio and your father had a bookstore. As a little girl who sometimes helped at the store, what did you dream to become when you grew up?
Dori: I dreamed to become a writer. I used to read a lot of books, especially growing up in my father's bookstore. When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I had a conversation with my dad and said I wanted to be an author. He said, "Well you are never going to get a job as an author. Nobody hires people to write books. So I suggest that you work in journalism because you can get a job in journalism." That was the first time I had ever thought about being a journalist. But I still had this dream in the back of my mind that I wanted to write books.
Wen: In college, at Princeton University, you studied European history. Why European history?
Dori: When I was a kid, I was fascinated with other countries and other cultures, the long ago and far away. In high school, the only options for foreign languages were French, German and Spanish. There were no Asian languages being offered in most high schools in America in those days. I chose French as the language I wanted to learn. The first time I went overseas was when I was in high school. I was able to spend a summer in France on a program and live with a family. I got fascinated with France.
At college, I decided to major in history because I was interested in journalism. My first job after hearing this advice from my dad was at age 18 when I had a summer internship with a newspaper. During college, I worked for newspapers all four summers. I became very interested in journalism, and I thought, if you want to be a journalist, it's good to understand recent history. At Princeton, they had no journalism department, so I didn't have the option of majoring in journalism. So I decided to major in history and take courses that focus on recent history. Because I was interested in France, I specialized in European history.
Wen: You were studying for your master's in International Relations at Johns Hopkins University and got a fellowship to teach English in Singapore, where you also studied Mandarin Chinese. Why Singapore, why Mandarin Chinese, why the yearning for the East?
Dori: I didn't know anything about Asia, nothing. When it came time to graduate, I wanted to live overseas. I applied for several different programs. One was the Peace Corps. They wanted to send me to French West Africa. I also had an offer to work in a bookstore warehouse in Germany. I applied for a program called Princeton-in-Asia, which finds jobs for recent graduates teaching English in Asia. They offered me a position to teach English in Singapore. I was fascinated by the possibility of learning about Asia and learning Mandarin. So I accepted this fellowship in Singapore. It involved instruction in Mandarin Chinese four hours a day, five days a week, twenty hours a week—very intensive! That's really the best way to learn Chinese if you're an American. But I knew very little about Singapore. In those days, this was 1976, it was not possible for American citizens to study Chinese in China, except in Taiwan and Hong Kong. So that wasn't an option. Taiwan would have been an option. But the particular year I graduated, what was available was Singapore. So I decided to go to Singapore.
Wen: You were very adventurous because that was quite a departure from anything European or French. You swung to the other side of the globe.
Dori: Yes. But I love learning languages, I love traveling, I love finding out about different parts of the world and exploring. It was fascinating to me to explore a different part of the world and to learn a language that was so very different from English. So the challenge of learning Chinese made it very appealing.
Wen: You had to be very good to get what you said your dream job in 1981, at age 26, as a Business Week foreign correspondent in Hong Kong, covering China. Tell us what it was like getting this dream job and also what your dad said since he had suggested you try journalism?
Dori: I was hired by Business Week initially at age 26 to work in New York City, and I worked there for a year and half. Actually I was 28 by the time they sent me to Hong Kong. But that was still very young to be a foreign correspondent, especially to be a bureau chief. It was a very small bureau, but I was a bureau chief at age 28. It was very exciting. After those two years in Singapore, I went to graduate school because I had travelled around Asia but understood very little about it because I had studied about Europe. So I wanted to study more about Asia, particularly China. So I went to graduate school in international relations and mostly studied about China, a little bit about Southeast Asia. During those years, when I lived in Washington D.C., Deng Xiaoping came to Washington. I got to see him when he visited because I had a part-time job with an organization called the National Council for U.S.-China Trade, which is today called U.S.-China Business Council. It was wonderful because I also was interested in journalism and they had a magazine called China Business Review. I worked for the magazine, writing articles about China, and also learning about China, particularly the Chinese economy. While I was getting my degree in international relations, the National Council was one of the sponsors for some of the events during Deng Xiaoping's visit. That was a very exciting time.
Also, when the U.S. and the People's Republic of China established relations in 1979, it became possible for American journalists to be stationed in Beijing. So suddenly American magazines and newspapers were very interested in sending reporters to China. Having a background in journalism, being able to speak Mandarin Chinese, and having studied about the Chinese economy, I was in a very good position to look for a job as a foreign correspondent. So I applied to all the U.S. magazines and newspapers that had foreign correspondents; there weren't many that did. Some of them already had reporters trained up to cover China, but Business Week didn't. They were very interested in my background and they were the ones that hired me. They had in mind that they would eventually send me to cover China. They initially trained me up in New York. I was in New York for a year and half, really learning about the magazine and its approach. Then in June 1982, they sent me to Hong Kong. The reason they had a bureau in Hong Kong and not in Beijing was that in those years, U.S.-Taiwan trade and U.S.-Hong Kong trade were actually higher than U.S.-China trade in dollar amounts. So they thought if I was in Hong Kong, I would be centrally located to cover Hong Kong business, Taiwan business and the opening of the mainland, which was what I did. I was sent on a three-year assignment, and I loved it so much I stayed for eight years.
Wen: What did your dad say?
Dori: My dad was pretty surprised, and very happy for me. He just wanted me to go into journalism, but to go in journalism and become a foreign correspondent at such a young age was a big coup.
Wen: With your dream job, you were also, as you said, breaking into a traditionally male dominated area. Could you describe a little bit what it was like starting out young and female and doing business reporting from Hong Kong?
Dori: Business reporting in particular was very male-dominated. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were increasing numbers of women reporters, but still not a lot, especially in business journalism. I didn't know much about business, but I learned quickly. At that time, business publications were looking for women who were interested business journalism because they knew they didn't have enough women on their staff. So it was a good time to break in because they were very eager to be proactive in hiring women. When I got to Hong Kong, I found that being a woman was not a disadvantage in any way. When I went to interview people, I was interviewing them as an American reporter from Business Week. They knew that whatever they said to me might go into Business Week, so it didn't matter if I was male or female.
Wen: So you didn't have any problem being a young and female reporter?
Dori: The only problem was when I was working in New York for Business Week. I called someone to do an interview, just to get some information about his country. It was a man from another country, though not China. He arranged to meet me for lunch. He took me to the Playboy Club. I was pretty shocked. There were Playboy bunnies running around with the little cotton bunny tails. I did do the interview, but I felt very uncomfortable. This guy hadn't figured out that this was not an appropriate place to take a young female reporter for lunch.
Part 2. Love for Chinese Culture, a Chinese Husband, and Despair in Tiananmen
Wen: Having studied Chinese and now covering China from Hong Kong, you said you fell in love with Chinese culture and language. What was it about the Chinese culture and language you loved so much?
Dori: I liked the challenge of the language being so different from English. The writing of it is so beautiful, and it is not a phonetic language, so it was quite a challenge for me. I also was attracted by the culture, which is so ancient and so rich. The more I learned about Chinese history and about Chinese current events, the more I realized how complex and interesting it is, with so many levels of depths.
Wen: You forgot about your French.
Dori: Now when I try to speak words in French, they all come out in Chinese! (laugh)
Wen: In 1981, when you started in Hong Kong, the normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China was still pretty new and exciting. What was the very first story you wrote from Hong Kong?
Dori: I don't remember what the very first story I wrote was, but I have an interesting story about that time. Right before I left New York, I wrote a book review, about a book written by a Harvard professor called The East Asia Edge. At the time, people were talking about the Four Tigers, meaning Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, being very dynamic, export-oriented economies. This professor said that mainland China would be next Tiger, or even Dragon, and that China would develop export-oriented manufacturing. In my review of that book, I said this professor doesn't know what he is talking about. China is a Communist country with a command economy. All factories are state-owned. They are very inefficient with huge work forces. They don't understand Western markets. There is no way that China could become an export-oriented economy. I was so wrong! But that shows how unlikely and how amazing it is that China evolved a market economy over the last thirty years.
Those years of the 1980s were an amazing time to be a reporter, especially a business reporter, covering China. When I first went in 1982, the Chinese economy was still very closed. Investment, joint ventures and trade were very, very new. Laws were changing and companies were allowed to come in and do things that had not been allowed before. American businessmen were having their initial meetings with Chinese in their industries. In the course of those ten years, there were amazing changes in China. I remember one story I wrote was about when China decided to open a stock market. That was shocking because the stock market is the ultimate symbol of capitalism. China, which was still run by something called the Communist Party, was opening a stock market! A year earlier I could never have imagined that I would be writing that story.
Wen: You didn't just get a dream job, you got a dream date, or encounter, in 1983. You and Paul Yang, who became your husband, met as fellow passengers on an airplane and had a conversation for 14 hours. Do you believe in 缘分, yuan fen, Chinese for lot or fate that exists between two people?
Dori: After I met Paul and later married him, a lot of his Chinese friends and family mentioned 缘分, yuan fen. Also there is a Chinese saying: 一见钟情, yi jian zhong qing (Love at first sight). 钟 zhong is actually my surname. I thought that was kind of interesting. I guess it was fated to happen. The reason I sat next to him on that airplane was that someone at the airline had misspelled his name, Yang. They had written Wang. So when he got to the airport, they didn't have his reservation. They made him wait. He had booked himself an aisle seat, which he prefers. But it turned out they had given away his seat. They gave him a middle seat, where he had to sit all the way from Hong Kong to San Francisco. But that's why he sat next to me. If they had spelled his name correctly, we never would have met.
Wen: He was not complaining! You should have written the airline a letter, thanking them.
Dori: We say that PanAm was the matchmaker. (laugh)
Wen: On June 5, 1989, the day after the military crackdown of the Tiananmen demonstration, you drove around Beijing for four hours to take a final look before leaving the city. You wrote in BW that the Beijing you watched bloom for 10 years seemed to have died overnight. Could you recall a little bit the feeling you had that day?
Dori: It was depressing. It was terrible. Anytime you visit a place where you once felt safe and confident and then see bullet holes in the sides of buildings, upturned cars, twisted metal, it is shocking.
Wen: You were brave to go outside right after that.
Dori: It seemed to me that the shooting was over. It turned out there was some sniper fire going on that day, but the main crackdown was over. I rented a taxi, a small minivan with a driver who was willing to take me around. He said I had to sit in the back seat and keep the windows up. The windows were tinted. He didn't want anyone to see that he had a foreigner in the back of his car. We drove all around the city to see where the damage was, where the crackdown had been. We weren't allowed into the square. Tiananmen Square was blocked off. But we went all way around it and out to the university district, where there were still some protest banners.
I had been there a few weeks earlier, when the demonstrations were going on in the streets. That was exhilarating, to see people feeling so open. In fact, during the course of the 1980s, Chinese people had become much more open. In the beginning of the 1980s, a lot of people were afraid to talk to me, a foreign journalist. During the course of the 80s, I was able to make friends, develop contacts and get people to trust me; I got to know more and more people. Then in Tiananmen Square, during the demonstrations, total strangers would come up to me and tell me of their political views, everything they thought about the government and what they were doing. It was the most open and exhilarating time imaginable. After the crackdown, it seemed to me, all the openness was over and no one would trust me as a foreign journalist anymore. They wouldn't want to talk to me, even people I had befriended. I didn't really want to contact them because that might put them in danger. At that time, it seemed that China would close up again. But China didn't close up. China continued to develop its economy and to encourage foreign business and investment.
Wen: There were not many people going around the town when you were there.
Dori: No. There weren't many cars on the road.
Wen: It could be dangerous out there.
Dori: Foreigners, I think, were a little safer than Chinese citizens. I wasn't afraid for my life. It did turn out there was some sniper fire, even directed at the U.S. embassy on that day. Things were chaotic.
Wen: You wrote many China stories for Business Week and must have interviewed many people in China for those stories. Was there one story or interview that you liked best or are most proud of and why?
Dori: Well, that's a hard question. The highest-level person I interviewed was Tian Jiyun. He was the vice premier at that time. When the editor-in-chief of Business Week came over, we got to go into Zhongnanhai to interview him. But the interviews I loved most were with Chinese entrepreneurs. As a business reporter, I was interested in U.S.-China business, but I was also interested in seeing how small-scale entrepreneurs would dare to go into business for themselves, start up something small and building up a business in their hometown. I really enjoyed going around and interviewing people like that. I remember one guy who was planting trees. He was going to open a nursery, selling trees to the government for beautification. I really admired people who were bold enough to start up their own businesses.
Part 3. Comparing China Then and Now, Over Two Decades Apart
Wen: You wrote a lot of business stories, especially of American companies investing or manufacturing in China. In a 1985 piece, you talked about "the centuries-old dream of 'the China market.'" As you mentioned in the same piece, the U.S.-China trade was $6 billion in 1984. Last year, 2011, it topped $503 billion, with the U.S. deficit at about $300 billion. So how do you think "the centuries-old-China-market-dream" is doing for American companies?
Dori: The centuries-old dream was to sell American-made goods into China. Yet the biggest growth in U.S.-China trade has been in Chinese goods sold into the U.S. That is ironic. It happened differently than a lot of the initial Americans expected. But there are a lot of American products being sold in China now. American cars, I understand, are very popular, as are luxury goods from Europe. What we didn't expect, what I obviously didn't expect either, was that China would become a manufacturing powerhouse and would become a major exporter to the U.S.
One of the most amazing things is how many hundreds of millions people have been lifted out of the poverty in China over the last thirty years. As that middle class and upper class grow, demand for higher-quality goods is growing. As more and more people in China are able to afford more expensive imported goods, that market will grow as well.
Wen: In a Business Week special report during the Tiananman event in 1989, you described China's problem as a confrontation between a New China and an Old China, New China as represented by the protesting students and entrepreneurs, and Old China the state-controlled economy and heavy-handed government. Do you still see that New China and Old China today?
Dori: It is interesting that I wouldn't have described that way today. I think there was more of a serious confrontation, particularly a political confrontation, in the 80s. There was more political infighting over those issues. As the older generation of leaders in China had gone out of power, that very traditional Communist outlook seems less prominent. But some of those issues obviously are still there today. The government is not as heavy-handed as it was in the 80s, but it is more heavy-handed than it is in this country and the West.
Wen: You left China after Tiananmen, along with many foreign journalists fleeing the country. 20 some years later, when China restrained foreign journalists again following the Arab Spring, you wrote in the Huffington Post, "From a journalist's perspective," you said, "a revolution with street protests is always better than quiet change behind the scenes, but," you continued, "not necessarily better for the majority of people of the country involved" and that "the Chinese government wanted to avoid Middle East kind of chaos." So did your views change over the years about Chinese government control?
Dori: My views have changed a lot. One reason is that I understand more about Chinese history now than I did before. In the last two hundred years, during those times when China had a very weak central government or no central government, there was a lot of chaos in China. Foreign powers came in and took away certain rights from the Chinese government. During the Opium Wars, during the Japanese occupation, and the warlord era of the 1920s and 1930s, China didn't have a strong central government at all. I think a lot of Americans don't understand how many Chinese feel that they need a strong central government to keep the country together. There are certain basic civil rights—like having enough to eat, a stable economy, a stable political system with no disastrous political campaigns, no foreigners encroaching on their country—that are necessary to improve people's lives. In the U.S., we haven't had that kind of instability, certainly in the lifetime of people who are alive today. So we don't really understand how important stability is. China has had periods of terrible instability, which they associated with a weak central government. Over the years, I came to understand why a strong central government is important to a lot of people in China.
Wen: Now the Bo Xilai scandal. You knew a lot about the power struggle within the Communist Party when you were covering China, as you wrote about Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang in those days. You must have also heard a lot about the corruption in China. Were you surprised about the Bo Xilai story?
Dori: A lot of people were surprised about it. That's why it was in the newspapers. One thing good that comes out of it is that it's now in the hands of the courts. There are some criminal charges being made against his wife and there may be a trial. It will be interesting to watch how the Chinese justice system works in this particular case.
Wen: Do you think it's a continuation of power struggle?
Dori: There is probably more of a power struggle than we see. One of the other good developments in the last thirty years in China is the ability to have a peaceful transition to a new generation of leaders. That has happened several times now. That's really important for stability. This incident raises some questions about that because Bo Xilai is one of the next generation of leaders, and at one point, people were thinking he would have very high position. So it will be very interesting to watch how the Chinese government handles this situation, particularly with the upcoming transition of power.
Wen: China has changed a great deal since you wrote about it in Hong Kong. Somethings, however, have not changed that much. In 1989, the day you drove around Beijing after the crackdown, a Chinese dissident, the late physicist Dr. Fang Lizhi, entered the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for protection. Today, 20 some years later, another dissident, this time the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, also went in American embassy for protection. What is your take on these two incidents over two decades apart, from both a journalist and a historian point of view?
Dori: That's a very hard question. I think we should be careful about drawing judgments based on newspaper articles when there is a lot of information we don't know. There will be more information to come out about this. It puts the U.S. embassy and the U.S. government in an awkward position when Chinese people feel that they can come to the U.S. embassy to get protection, because it sets a precedent. If too many people start doing that, it will cause a very big problem. It's also important to encourage human rights without interfering in China's internal affairs. That's a very awkward, difficult, political and diplomatic line that American diplomats have to deal with. From what it seems, Chen was an activist but working within the legal system, trying to bring abuses to light. That should be the way that China works, with checks and balances.
Fang Lizhi was a lot more prominent. It is interesting that in Fang Lizhi's case, he came to the U.S. and did some writing, but you didn't hear much about him after that. In Chen's case, his passion is changing things within China. So if he comes to the U.S., he can't really change things in China any more. That's the dilemma of a dissident, isn't it? If you stay in China, then you can make a difference, but you can also be arrested. But if you leave China, then you become just an overseas dissident, and your chance of making a difference in your home country is limited.
Wen: So do you think in this area, not economics, things haven’t changed that much?
Dori: Yes. In the economic situation, things have changed a great deal. I think the Chinese government still wants stability and harmony and unity. From a historical perspective, I understand why they think that stability is important. But there need to be checks and balances in any system. I would hope that China could develop more checks and balances, and that people who are holding their feet to the fire would have a chance to continue to do that.
Wen: Very balanced, from both journalist and historian point of view.
Wen: A bonus question: Do you have a Chinese name and what is it and how did you get it?
Dori: My Chinese name is 钟德瑞, Zhong Derui. My surname is Zhong because it sounds like my original surname, Jones. Back when I was studying Mandarin in Singapore, my Chinese teacher gave me the name 钟多丽, Zhong Duoli, because Duoli sounds like Dori. When I met my husband, he said that was 太俗气, not cultivated enough. So he changed my name to Derui. Derui sounds like Dori, and he thinks it sounds more sophisticated.
Wen: More serious. I actually like Duoli. Thank you so much Dori, or Derui!