A couple of days ago, I received a phone call from a producer from BBC’s Newhour program, requesting for an interview on Chinese media, following the event of a strike by the journalists from Southern Weekend, one of the most popular and influential newspaper. I agreed readily since it is a subject that interests and a subject that I know a little bit. The producer explained it would be a panel discussion with one and two other panelists. Who are they, I asked, just out of curiosity. The producer said he didn’t know yet. I was the first one he contacted.
One hour later, I received a call from Ian, saying he was looking forward to hearing me from the BBC. How did you know? I was surprised. He laughed and explained that he would be on the same panel on the BBC program, as a reporter for New York Times. When the producer told him I was another panelist, Ian laughed. The producer asked why. Ian said: “She’s just someone I know very well.” If Ian were less modest, he might say: “Oh, her! When she started out as a freelance journalist, it was me who showed her the ABC’s of being a journalist.” I had met Ian in the end of 1994 when he was working for Baltimore Sun, and myself a freelance fixer for the foreign correspondents. I did some fixing for him and became friends with him and his very kind wife Elke. Two years later, after I left my full-time fixer’s job with the Australian Broadcasting Cooperation and started to pursue a career as a journalist of my own rights, it was Ian who guided me. Ever since then, I’ve always turned to him for help and guidance as I found him such a kind and wise man.
Now, to be on the same panel as my mentor? Oh, great! I thought. On second thought, I panicked. When Ian Johnson was there, what else would I say? In my view, Ian is one of the best foreign correspondents reporting from China, perhaps the very best. He is a sinologist with a history of long involvement with China; he is an intellectual who writes with depth and he also has a human touch. Ian laughed at my concern, arguing that I have been interviewed more frequently than he has.
The panel discussion, less than ten minutes long, went fine. Another panelist, a lady from BBC’s Chinese service, went first to fill in the listeners what the Southern Weekend story was all about; I talked about the degree of the censorship and what it means for the Chinese journalists and Ian put the story in the bigger picture and talked about why the editorials talked about the constitutional rights.
I have indeed been interviewed frequently by the BBC. But I particularly enjoyed this one because I was on the same panel with a special friend. I took it as a sign that I’ve come up a little in the world.
It also made me think how lucky I have been. I have met quite a few friends who have gone out of their way to help me. Ian is one of such friends.