Welcome to our sixth Asia Undercovered Journalist Q&A. This month’s Q&A is with Pei-Hua Yu, based in Taiwan.
Pei-Hua is a freelance journalist, who studied journalism in Hong Kong and was working in China covering Chinese overseas investment before becoming a full-time freelancer. Now, she focuses on two types of stories: the local political economy of countries such as Myanmar and Indonesia; and the challenges of energy transition, including China’s involvement.
She shares with us why she became a journalist, the surprising difference when writing in English versus Chinese, and why taking a regional focus is important when covering Asia.
Daniela: Can you tell us about what led you to become a journalist?
Pei-Hua: I had thought about being a journalist since my high school years. At that time, more than 10 years ago, newspapers were windows on the world beyond my local communities. I enjoyed being enlightened by the newspaper, and I was driven by that curiosity about what was going on in the world. I seized every opportunity that could connect me to the world outside, including a scholarship at the University of Hong Kong to study history and journalism. However, it took much more trials and errors to find out what I really wanted to do or my “Ikigai” (生きがい) - a Japanese word for the intersection of what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you are good at.
Some people become a journalist after specializing in something different in university, but it looks like you studied journalism in university. What are the pros/cons of this?
In my opinion, there are at least two types of outstanding journalists. One type is those with a journalism degree who read widely, and the second type is those without a journalism degree who are persistent to find out the truth. But both types of journalists share the passion about finding out and sharing the truth for the public interest. Thus, I don't have an absolute answer whether it is good to have a journalism degree or not. What a journalist studied at university is just a small part of what is required in the workplace.
Why did you become a freelance journalist? And what are the benefits and challenges of working for a specific outlet/organization versus working as a freelancer?
The media environment has been changing a lot China, and as a journalist, I saw the need to look beyond the Chinese domestic media - to diversify publishing partners and expand readerships.
As a freelance journalist, I am able to choose what media to partner with. That means you have multiple options to evade constraints that stem from censorship or the limitation of reader interest and to maximize the reach of your work. As a writer with relatively clear areas of interests and expertise, I also get to focus my efforts on in-depth reporting on the topics that I am dedicated to in the long-term, without having to spread my attention to administrative duties or other issues that diverge too much from my focus.
Is it important to report in more than one language? Are there any differences in how you tell the story depending on what language it is in?
I cover issues that matter to people from more than one territory. Publishing in more than one language is key to widening the reach and maximizing the chance for the people who have a stake in the issues covered to read and comment on your work.
There are some differences between English and Chinese news writing. In English news, outlets value conciseness and timeliness. The audiences are geographically wider and your story might be read by international experts on the issues. Meanwhile Chinese readers can read very long stories and they want to know everything comprehensively. They are very interested in the history and developments behind what’s happening in a country. They often ask what kinds of political structures have brought about the current state.
This might also have something to do with the linguistic differences. In Chinese, characters embody a meaning and its sound. Chinese readers are used to consuming a lot of information in one text. Thus, the in-depth Chinese pieces usually have to include much more nuances than do comparable English pieces. As a bilingual writer, I'm trying to bring the accuracy that English writing requires into my Chinese pieces, and bring the nuances that in-depth Chinese writing requires into my English pieces.
Why did you decide to begin focusing on regional issues, such as energy and infrastructure? Is your focus on China due to your background/language skills, or something else?
My journalistic career in China started with forming a new team focused on Chinese overseas investment and infrastructure – something which not many newsrooms in China were doing at the time. My team wrote daily news articles and later more in-depth reporting on the progress of major Chinese deals abroad and on foreign policy changes that would impact the interest of the Chinese businesses.
The job enabled me to identify and discuss some of the questions I am really interested in, including but not limited to: how does a country develop? And how are political power and economic resources distributed as a country develops? And how do the people feel about the process? Language skills can benefit reporting on China’s global engagements, but it’s also crucial to understand how Chinese agencies work and how they interact with the players in the host countries.
I’m particularly interested in energy and infrastructure as they tend to be huge projects that interlink many political and economic issues in those countries. They impact a lot of people.
Chinese investment and influence in Asia has become a global issue. Do you have any thoughts or criticism on how global media, particularly mainstream English media, covers the rise of China in Asia?
There are two points to make. Firstly, often English media and local media outside of China refer to a Chinese company or any entity from China as “China” or “Beijing.” This does not help the readers to understand what is going on. China is a huge country with many different players and agencies. Of course the lack of understanding is partly attributable to the difficulty to acquire information from some of the Chinese agencies . But I think journalists can do more to dissect the truth.
The second point is that stories that need to be told about China’s role in the world are not only about the rise of China. For example, the grassroots Chinese overseas workers’ plight is often under-reported by Chinese media, international media, and the local media in the host countries.. The workers are driven to work abroad by the limited economic opportunities back home in China, and they are often isolated in the host countries. This group of people is one of the subjects that I wish to write more on.
Asia Undercovered: Weekly round-ups and in-depth analysis of the news, events, trends and people changing Asia, but not getting enough attention in the US media.