During an interview by the Association and Club of Foreign Press Correspondents in the United States, Yan Zhang talked about the fear and uncertainties involved in working as a visa-dependent journalist in Washington.
Zhang was an Alfred Friendly Fellow in 2019 and was the chief correspondent for Initium Media in Washington D.C. from 2019 to 2021. She assembled and led a team covering U.S.-China relations, the Chinese diaspora, and other topics. She has authored long-form stories for Chinese readers worldwide. During her fellowship sponsored by the Pat and Janna Stueve Foundation, she worked with USA Today covering the U.S.-China trade war.
Why did you decide to work as a foreign correspondent in the US?
I first arrived in the U.S. for a journalism fellowship in 2019 and started to work with USA Today as a visiting scholar during the US-China trade dispute. While there, I spoke with many American consumers, business owners, and farmers. This was the first time I learned that China’s influence, and its interaction with the rest of the world, could have such a significant impact on another society.
At the same time, I sensed a growing mistrust between American and Chinese societies but still wanted to maintain economic, trade, and cultural exchanges. These hesitations and nuances, however, are not widely known because of language barriers and other factors.
I have always been interested in complexity and am willing to explain these complexities to my readers. So after completing my fellowship, I convinced my then-employer Initium Media to let me move from Hong Kong to Washington, D.C., to officially become a U.S.-based journalist covering U.S.-China relations. My work has been fulfilling ever since.
What lessons have you learned over the years of working as a foreign correspondent?
Many journalists are proud to report from Washington, D.C., where the world’s most impactful foreign policy originates. Journalists, including me, spend a lot of time and energy covering the White House, Department of State, and Congress, trying to reach out to the people at the center of power.
These are certainly important. But one lesson I learned is that if you want to understand politics, you have to understand how ordinary people’s lives are affected by politics. As people were busy covering the 2020 U.S. presidential election, a veteran foreign correspondent told me that the best stories about the election don’t happen in Washington, they happen outside of the capital. He was right.
Increasingly, I find that as a current affairs reporter, the most important thing is to understand human nature and people’s lives, to observe how people exercise their political power and express their voices.
Which is the most important part of your work as a US-based foreign journalist?
First-hand information. I was one of the few Chinese journalists working in Washington for the Hong Kong media. I have seen many historic moments here: the US-China trade war, the coronavirus outbreak, the US presidential election, the Capitol riots … I’m proud that I can tell my readers first-hand. At the same time, I’ve tried as many forms of storytelling as I can. For example, I not only write stories, but I also do social media broadcasts, organize online seminars, and respond to letters from readers.
The other thing is to build the reporting team here. I wanted to create more opportunities in the U.S. for journalists who write in Chinese and also to give Chinese readers more sources of information. That way, even if I leave the U.S. one day, the team can still continue to grow in the U.S. and provide quality reporting for Chinese readers.
As a foreign correspondent, what is the most exciting part of your job?
I’ve always loved human stories and am often excited by the conversations I have with people.
One of the people I spoke with was a soybean farmer from Kentucky. China was his biggest customer, and the U.S.-China trade dispute was affecting his business. We talked on the phone from time to time. Sometimes he would send me pictures of his farm and family, sometimes he would say he had auctioned off his farm equipment because business was not running well, and sometimes he would just complain.
What he brought to me was his knowledge, life experiences, expectations, and preconceptions. These organic details not only helped me form story after story for my readers in Asia but also created a true connection of understanding between the two societies.
My colleagues and I published a series of stories in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. It’s called “How has Trump changed your life in the last four years?” We turned the camera on ordinary Americans: farmers, government employees, NGO workers, police officers, immigrants, sexual minorities, Gen Zs and asked them to tell us how their lives have been impacted by four years of the presidency.
The series generated a tremendous response, with many readers saying it was the first time they had seen real Americans, and they kept writing to us saying they wanted the series to continue.
What are the frustrating or upsetting aspects of working as a journalist for a foreign media outlet in the US?
There was a lot of uncertainty about U.S.-China relations in 2020. The Chinese government had expelled a number of U.S. media reporters, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. In retaliation, the Trump administration shortened visas for all Chinese journalists to 90 days. This affected not only many Chinese state media outlets, but also me—a journalist who used to work for an independent Hong Kong media outlet.
It also happened at the height of the pandemic in the United States. I spent a lot of time researching how to renew my visa because it was hard to get a ticket back to China. There was also a lot of fear about the uncertainty of the future.
But I was encouraged by some of my fellow journalists. They gave me a lot of mental support and made me believe that my work was important. Because in such a sensitive time, truthful information and detailed reporting become more indispensable.
Did your work as a foreign correspondent in the US impact the perspective you had about America?
As a journalist, I will try to maintain my objectivity, and sometimes deliberately keep myself as an outsider. So it’s hard for me to say whether my perspective of America has changed because of my work. Nevertheless, I did gain a better understanding of the abstract concepts of democracy, rule of law, and political rights.
Can you offer any advice to aspiring foreign correspondents from around the world who wish to work in the United States?
I would suggest that it would be best to find a community of your own, whether it’s a foreign correspondent association or other like-minded friends. Because being a foreign correspondent can be very lonely. It is important to find peers to talk to.