WHEN 20-year-old Jaime FlorCruz arrived in the hot steam of Beijing on August 21, 1971, the Filipino student leader was excited for the three-week tour to find out what was behind the bamboo curtain of the red China.
He never expected, however, to stay on for more than 43 years, to earn a living on a farm and fishing boat during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), to study at Peking University as former leader Deng Xiaoping revived the college entrance examination in 1977, to have one-on-one interview with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin when he was Shanghai mayor in the mid-1980s, and to retire as the longest-serving foreign correspondent in China last year, having worked for Newsweek, Time and CNN.
“Back in the Philippines, I was an advertising major, a senior university student, very active in the student movement and anti-government demonstrations,” the former CNN Beijing bureau chief tells Shanghai Daily at a café in Beijing.
“It would have probably been a very different path if I didn’t come on that three-week tour in China,” he says.
As FlorCruz and his fellow students were exploring China, political movements broke out back in the Philippines, then under Ferdinand Marcos, and he was soon blacklisted by his home country.
His old passport, at the time still stamped “not valid in Communist states,” expired two years later, and he became stateless for the next 10 years, until the Philippines issued a new one in 1983.
“For 12 years, I could not travel outside of China,” he says. “It was clear to us that it was better to stay and wait.”
Their Chinese host, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, provided assistance and took care of the students, but they didn’t just want to wait on fate.
As it was in the middle of the “cultural revolution” and impossible to continue education, they decided to work.
“We were young and wanted to change the world. We wanted to earn our keep and we heard about xia xiang (going to the countryside),” says FlorCruz. “We had a romantic idea about it and we believed it was a good way to learn about China.”
He did discover something different from the tour, after being sent to a farm in the suburbs of Hengyang City in Hunan Province, not far from Chairman Mao Zedong’s hometown, Shaoshan of Xiangtan City in the same province.
There, FlorCruz worked with farmers for seven months. With no experience in farming work, he learned all that, improved his Chinese and mastered all the slogans that were popular during the time.
“The farm was poor and isolated, but our life on the farm was interesting in the sense that we were up close with the Chinese life and the reality,” he recalls. “We saw how life was like. It was very monotonous, and with very little to do after work.”
The next posting was in coastal Yantai City of Shandong Province, working on a fishing boat where he would sail for five to seven days and rest for two, for a total of 18 months.
He had to fight seasickness and solitude, and what’s worse he didn’t know when or whether he could go home. Correspondence with his family took weeks, and he kept writing “I am in good health.”
“We were going month by month, year by year. That was the hardest part,” he says. “I kept writing to my parents, telling them I’m in good health, but I couldn’t tell them I was working on a fishing boat.”
In 1974, FlorCruz was able to return to school, learning Chinese at the Beijing Language and Culture University, among the earliest foreign students to learn Chinese.
“I had a great time there, finishing a three-year course in two years. I was able to pick up from where I left, but also more than that, it widened my horizons again,” he says.
“After three years in China, I was losing touch with the outside world. So through my classmates from different countries, I was able to reconnect myself with what’s going on overseas, speaking in English again with them.”
“The big turning point,” as FlorCruz calls it, came in 1977, when former leader Deng Xiaoping resumed the college entrance exam, a policy that benefited millions, including FlorCruz.
In 1977, 57 million Chinese people took the exam and about 270,000 became the first batch of university students after the “cultural revolution.”
“It was a big turning point for me, and it was also a time when China was beginning to open up,” he says.
“It was an exciting period when China was pushing for many new policies, when the previous taboos were being challenged, breaking down, and people started to talk about very inconvenient issues. To me, that was a very special time.”
FlorCruz was enrolled into the four-year undergraduate program in Peking University’s history department, studying with Chinese students. His schoolmates included many who are now important figures in the government, in business and in academic, including current Premier Li Keqiang.
“It is that group of people who became very important in the past 25 to 30 years of reform,” FlorCruz recalls, adding he enjoyed learning about China’s history and making many friends.
“For me this is perhaps one of the most interesting periods of my life in my years here,” he says. “And also it’s a current topic, because many of my schoolmates are still around, active in different fields, inside and outside of China. It’s a slice of my life.”
FlorCruz is now recording this slice of life, working on a book telling the stories of those four years in Peking University, when he already acted like a journalist without knowing he would ever become one.
“I became more realistic, understanding that China was more complicated than it seemed. It was a long process of digestion on what I went through, and also trying to figure out what was the real China,” he adds, with a smile.
“That process is still going on today,” he says.
Stepping out of the foreign student dorm, he became active with his Chinese schoolmates, joining the school’s basketball team, that became Beijing champions and were third in the national student tournament.
It led to friends on and off campus, to private conversations, and to all kinds of gossips that inspired him “to be open-minded but also to look beyond the official lines and to make independent judgment,” he recalls. “I was sort of like a journalist already.”
Studying modern Chinese history, FlorCruz wrote his thesis on the youth movement against Japanese troops and the government’s compromising policies on December 9, 1935. It matched with his interest in China’s history and himself a student leader organizing youth movement.
For the thesis, he interviewed a dozen of those who participated in the movement, and “it read more like a report,” he says. “My professor wasn’t impressed, but I enjoyed writing about it because it was writing about real people.”
As FlorCruz was writing the thesis, he also started working as a part-time assistant at Newsweek, which led him into the world of journalism. Just before he finally got a new passport in 1983, FlorCruz was hired by Time Magazine, for the next 16 years, first as correspondent and later as bureau chief. In 2000, he joined CNN.
As a veteran foreign correspondent, he has also been invited to media training for spokesmen and women in China, offering his perspective on the cross-cultural differences.
“It is important for them to go into our shoes, as foreign correspondents in China, to learn how we do things,” he suggests. “It is getting better in the sense that more younger officials get it on the working level.
“And I’m optimistic because the young generation of Chinese journalists, especially who came back from overseas, are bridging the gap, and that’s changing the way the officials behave or react as well,” he says.