NYTimes reporter Raymond Zhong: “Nothing helps you talk to strangers in China like a cigarette.”

From a Times Insider piece by Raymond Zhong headlined “How I Found Real Voices in China”:

One of the bigger regrets I have about my time in China is that I never took up smoking.

I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Nothing helps you talk to strangers in China like a cigarette. Whenever I wanted to find out what was going on inside a big company, I would look for someone outside an office or factory having a nicotine break. A shared smoke is a way to freeze time. And for a foreign reporter in a place where people aren’t always eager to speak to foreign reporters, even a little extra time can make the difference between a good interview and no interview at all.

Access to regular people in China might be the part of foreign correspondents’ jobs there that the Chinese authorities find hardest to control, though they certainly try. With a dose of charm and persistence from a reporter, people do open up, despite the country’s rigid curbs on speech and thought.

Last month, though, the Chinese government cut off that access for me and almost all of the other Americans working for The Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, ordering us out of the country as part of the intensifying standoff between the Trump administration and Beijing.

I spent much of my two years in China covering that standoff, and from the great heights at which we journalists often write about such matters — through politicians’ statements and government policies, through trade data and corporate decisions — it could seem as if titanic forces in both nations were drawing them inexorably toward conflict.

But the situation usually looked different when speaking to ordinary people in China. Like people everywhere, they tend to be less dogmatic and more curious about the world than their leaders. Seen through their eyes, the wider costs of the hostility came into focus, as did the degree to which it was driven by anxieties that felt distant to the communities most directly affected by it. . . .

The next day, in the nearby city of Dongguan, I met Bruce Xu, whose company made cowboy boots for the American market. He was dreading the next wave of tariffs. But he was equally concerned for his American customers, whom he visited regularly.

I asked him what he thought of the United States.

“America is better than China,” he said. It’s cleaner, and the people are better mannered. In the United States, “you can’t even smoke,” he said. “No matter which floor you live on, you have to run downstairs and go outside to smoke.”. . .

One of the last conversations I had in the country was with two cops in Beijing. They were helping me obtain a temporary visa so I could stay a little longer and pack up everything I owned.

Officer Shao and his partner were relaxed and friendly, seemingly unbothered by my pariah status. As we waited for my visa, they asked me about The Times. If the paper isn’t controlled by the government, then who ensures that what you write is accurate? If it’s all up to your editors, then who appoints your editors?

We talked about the fear and xenophobia that the coronavirus had brought out in both China and the United States. They said they had even heard that Americans were stockpiling guns, though they weren’t sure if the news was fake. I was sorry to inform them that it was not.

Were those two officers the voice of real China? Maybe not. But they gave me a glimpse of life in the country at that moment, and they put familiar things in a new light. As far as I’m concerned, that was plenty.

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