As a freelancer, I'm always looking for stories, so a big part of my day is checking my curated Twitter feed to see what’s happening in the different places I cover, checking my inbox for press releases, looking at my schedule. Usually, I’m working on two or three stories at a time, so seeing what interviews I have scheduled this week, who I need to follow up with for a particular story, am I going to be able to meet my deadlines, and checking in with editors on the stories I’m working on currently to make sure things are on schedule. Then, I think I spend some time looking longer term, like what conferences or events are happening in the next three to four months that I should be thinking of covering, generating pitches and looking at which publications are open to which editors I should send those story pitches. Then, also spending some time on social media posting tweets or posting Facebook content to share what I’m doing with audiences around the world to maintain my profile as a journalist, because as a freelancer you also have to work on managing your public profile. So, quite a bit, but every day is a little different, so there’s not really a typical day.
Why do you think domestic media overlooks global issues, especially in the region of Asia?
Looking from a U.S. perspective as an American in Asia, I think in the U.S. we often have this mentality that comes as a consequence of the Cold War that we are the most important country in the world. Therefore, we should be at the center of any discussion about global topics. I think that mentality maybe made sense in the 80’s and 90’s, when the U.S. was the undisputed global power. Today, the dynamics of the world have changed, and I don't think the U.S. media has caught up fully to how things are changed in the world. Looking at Asia, China definitely gets a lot of media coverage because it’s a growing giant, because of its influence on trade and things like the Belt and Road Initiative, but a lot of the coverage of China tends to focus on trade or politics. It doesn't really focus on internal issues within China, and it also doesn't really focus enough on China's relationship with other countries in Asia. The rest of Asia gets overshadowed by China and the U.S., and I find it quite difficult as a freelancer who doesn't cover China as much to pitch stories that don't have a China/U.S. angle to English-language media. I think it's that kind of implicit bias, and our world view is a little bit stuck in the past. Indonesia for example, which I cover a lot, only gets media coverage when there’s a disaster or a terrorist attack or something related to Islam. Otherwise, it's very hard to see coverage about the country in Western media. I think those biases actually prevent good coverage of a lot of countries in the region.
On the subject of China, let’s talk about the persecution of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province. What do you think the Communist party seeks to gain from this ethnic cleansing? Do you think there’s any hope for the people there?
That’s a really good question. I don’t think I have a clear answer, but I can give some speculation. I think right now, with some of the interviews I’ve done, one of the dynamics going on right now is that Xi Jinping is consolidating power and he's really pushing for the security angle and a lot of provinces in China are competing to be the most secure or to have the highest level of order. The party leader in Xinjiang, who used to be the party leader in Tibet was able to clamp down on a protest in Tibet in 2008, before the Olympics. He just has been given a very long leash to implement the policies he sees fit. I’m not sure how much of that is coming from central government and how much is coming from him at the regional level. A lot of it seems like competition between different provinces to show that they're the strongest, that they’re the ones that are able to keep their population in line. A lot of it could just be struggles within the party to gain power, to appeal to Xi Jinping because he's consolidating power at a much stronger level. Fear of separatism is still a big component of it and when you don't have checks and balances in a system, in which China no longer really has, when you have one person who can basically just come from a security angle and push whatever strong security policies he wants on a population, and there's no mechanism to stop him, that’s a big part of what's happening. The party chief in Xinjiang just has unlimited power and unlimited funding to create this massive surveillance system. He's able to prove its effectiveness, because, from his point of view, it has stopped terrorist attacks and stopped the amount of dissident communication. Those are just my opinions, not my reported or on-the-ground analysis.
I don't see any sign whatsoever that Xi would shift away from this clamping on power. The question then, of course, is like when is Xi going to step down, because he now declared himself president for life. It could be a really long time. I know this year is really sensitive because it's the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen, it’s the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama fleeing Tibet, and there are several sensitive anniversaries. There are some theories I’ve heard that this year is going to be the worst, but after this year, when these sensitive anniversaries are finished, they expect to see at least some opening up again, but I’m not sure about that. If there is some opening up it's not going to be going back to pre-Xi, it's going to be just a small step back. I don't think there's any real chance, especially for Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, until there's new leadership in China.
What are your thoughts on Taiwan, which is obviously in the very unique position of being autonomous, yet its independence is not fully recognized on the global stage. Do you think there’s a chance at a universally accepted Taiwanese independence? What about the impact of the most recent elections?
Taiwan is super interesting. I’ve spent quite a bit of time there. They have a very vibrant democracy, and I think part of the reason why they have such a high level of young citizen engagement there, is because they see this threat of China every day, it's very visible. People there have an understanding that their democracy could be taken away at any moment, so they have to fight to preserve it. It creates a very interesting dynamic. It’s quite sad that you have this country that is probably the most democratic country in Asia and leading on human rights and civil rights and press freedom that isn’t being recognized by most countries in the world and is not part of the international community, is not part of the United Nations. It shows us it's commendable that Taiwan has been able to build something really special but it shows a state of geopolitics that doesn't seem to result in much concrete global power because China's financial might and their demand for resources overshadows Taiwan at every level.
I think you saw the last year there was a there was this big push by China to get all these airlines to stop recognizing Taiwan as a country. I thought it was disappointing how pretty much every airline in the world agreed very quickly. I think there could’ve been more pushback. Let’s say all the U.S. airlines said, “No we’re going to continue to call Taiwan a country”. There would be enough leverage because there are so many Chinese airlines flying to the U.S. that if they did try to retaliate there could have been a counter-retaliation. But none of the airlines were willing to stand up and there was no political backing from any country to say if you stand up to China we’ll back you if there any repercussions. I don't blame the airlines because they need the political support to do that. There could have been another way. This just emboldens China to do more. Now I saw a report that in the U.N. they’re pushing all these NGOs that are a member of the Human Rights Commission not to mention Taiwan on their websites or not to mention Taiwan on their reports as a country. They took that ground and now they’re going to take more because we let them—because the world let them take that ground. Taiwan will have elections in two years, so I’m very curious to see what will be the chance for the reelection of the president in two years, and one will be the political issues in the country from now until then.
On the political side, on things like Chinese Taipei and all the other issues like the resurgence of the opposition, KMT, part of it was low voter turnout. But sometimes we would tend to think that the people are just floating on the lens of China and it's a big issue, but I think domestic politics played a big role in this midterm election. There was some disappointment with the policies the president and her party. Voters are more voting on those domestic issues and domestic concerns then they were voting on international concerns. The president and the ruling party, the DPP have an opportunity to address those concerns domestically in the next two years. I saw some theories on the LGBT issue. Most countries in the world that have voted on it tend to lose. It has usually been courts that have pushed for gay marriage and marriage equality. That's the path that a lot of activists there think that Taiwan should have taken. The courts did mandate that, so the referendum was unnecessary. In putting a referendum in place, you kind of set it up for failure.
Moving on to Southeast Asia, in recent years the Philippines has become known for the president's so-called “War on Drugs” which has been condemned by various human rights organizations throughout the world. But in the Philippines, Duterte still retains a certain degree of popularity. Why do you think that is? What is it about him that the people like?
I haven't been on the ground much in the Philippines, but I can talk a little broadly of what I've seen regionally in Southeast Asia on drug policy. A lot of Southeast Asian countries really admire when a leader follows through on his promises and actually takes concrete action that they can see. The fact that Duterte ran on the policy of wanting end this problem with drugs and then immediately took very visible action. From a humanitarian perspective, terrible action that probably killed many innocent people, but I think for a lot of Filipinos after years of seeing presidents fail on promises and not keep their word, seeing this president that was down-to-earth, spoke more down-to-earth and more clearly and more in street language, and was actually following through on his campaign promises. That showed strength that they haven't seen in a leader in quite a while, and I think that appealed to a lot of Filipinos. The second thing is, especially in Indonesia, I’ve noticed this nostalgia for strongman rule. The Philippines was under a dictatorship until the late 1980s, and Indonesia was under a military dictatorship until the late 1990s. During those dictatorships there were huge human rights abuses and lots of corruption and embezzlement of state funds, but there’s still this lingering nostalgia because the image for a lot of people in those countries was like things were better during the dictatorship. Part of that reasoning is that they didn't know about the bad things happening because everything was censored and all they saw was this strong leader. Democracy in those countries has been chaotic and full of corruption, and you’re seeing in a lot of the news stories a lot of bad things happening in society, so for a lot of people you have this idea that maybe things were better when it was a strongman leader. I think Duterte taps into that false nostalgia about the Marcos era and he has definitely been appealing to that by moving Marcos’s tomb to the Cemetery of Heroes. Moves like that appeal to some Filipinos, especially those from the center of the country that speak the majority language and are Catholic.
If there is one piece of advice that you'd give to young aspiring journalists, what would it be?
I would really emphasize the importance being—especially if you want to report on a foreign country—being in the country. There's only so much you can learn from a distance by following social media or following local news feeds. I feel like I can spend a month following Twitter and local news from abroad, but I can go to Indonesia for one day and just talk to people in taxis or in a food court or hawker stall, and I know more about what's going on in the country in that one day than I did in 30 days. Part of that is also being open to getting stories from unfamiliar places I get interesting story ideas or I learn interesting things from regular people on the streets or from taxi drivers or street vendors because they often have the most interesting perspective about what's going on. They can show you a different way to see a political issue. So, always be there and be willing to talking to anybody you can and getting stories from unexpected places.