How to Survive in China as a Foreign Journalist

On Tuesday, renowned journalist Sue Williams traveled to Colgate to give a lecture entitled, “How to Succeed As A Foreign Journalist in China.”

Williams has produced many feature-length documentary films exploring the history of modern China. The difficulties she faced in gaining access to information were a central theme of her lecture.

“You want to ask tough questions that will help the public, but you have to get around the Byzantine structure of authority,” Williams said.

“The bluntness of party control can really jump out and shock you. Yet it’s intrinsically interesting to study people’s lives. People are willing and eager to tell their stories.”

Williams used personal anecdotes and brief film clips of her documentaries to illustrate the challenges and rewards of filming in Communist China, before opening the floor to questions.

One student compared William’s experiences in China to being a visitor in a stranger’s home; of course the strangers would not want the visitor to see the “dirty” aspects of their house.

“I think that’s a valid perspective,” Williams said. “But I think it is time that China assumes its role as a major power, and [admit] that it has problems. Someone doing a documentary of the United States would not film Disney World. They would want information on healthcare issues and insurance.”

Another student asked whether Williams thought China would be better off with fewer restrictions on the press.

“I don’t like repression or government censorship,” Williams said. “But stability comes at a price and China has a different culture and political past.”

“I think it’s remarkable that a foreign journalist was able to gain so much access to information, more than even some Chinese have,” NEH Professor Vivian Ling said.

“I think it’s a sign that China is becoming more self-confident and ‘hanging out its dirty laundry,’ in a sense.”

Sophomore Brandon Grabowski, one of the students in Ling’s class, said he enjoyed the lecture.

“We’ve been studying case studies of foreign journalism suppression, and how people respond to government change, and this lecture verified everything we’ve been learning,” he said.

Aside from her personal interest in her profession, Williams concluded that the nature of our global society renders China critically important.

“China is the country of the 21st century,” she said.