For a reporter working in the Shenyang Bureau of The Asahi Shimbun, in northeastern China, covering North Korea is one of the most important assignments.
Even before I moved to this city in February, every Korean affairs specialist I met in Japan gave me a piece of advice: “Korean language fluency is essential whether you are reading literature or meeting with people.”
Even though I started studying the Korean language on my own, in addition to Chinese, which I learned at my university, the brain of this almost 40-year-old reporter does not seem to absorb new words easily.
Another piece of advice I was given from specialists in reporting from Shenyang was, “The place you are going to be based is ‘traditional China.’ ”
They meant there are many conservative-minded people, unlike the coastal region, where former Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping’s openness and reform policy was promoted.
True, we rarely see critical articles toward government policies in local papers here, in contrast to the Huanan region in southern China.
It is not uncommon for people who have agreed to be interviewed to back out just before the appointment, apparently because of advice from the people around them.
Even a Chinese friend told me: “A foreign reporter will find it difficult to work here.”
Indeed, the language and “traditional China” are the two great barriers a local reporter must overcome, which can be compared to a strong dialect and bureaucracy of the central government agencies, which reporters in southern China and Beijing might face, respectively.
But I was somewhat consoled when I visited Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, near the Chinese border with North Korea.
It is the largest ethnic Korean region in the country, with about 40 percent of its more than 2 million people being ethnic Koreans.
Both Chinese characters and Hangul letters appear on road signs in Yanji, the prefectural capital.
Korean foods such as kimchi are sold at markets, and two languages can be heard mixed in people’s conversations on the street.
When I introduced myself in my poor Korean, ethnic Koreans I interviewed, who speak fluent Japanese, encouraged me, saying, “Pronunciation and the word order of Japanese and Korean resemble each other.”
Listening to their Japanese, I felt I had found a clue to overcoming one of the two great barriers, if not particularly easy.
Partly because there was the former “Manchukuo,” a puppet state in Manchuria created by Japan, many people in northeastern China have been educated in Japanese.
In particular, a great majority of children of ethnic Koreans in the autonomous prefecture had studied Japanese as part of compulsory education and as a foreign language in high school until 10 years ago.
However, they say students of Japanese have sharply decreased in number, mainly because of the decline in population, due to the exodus of people who work in South Korea, where the same ethnic people live, or in such cities as Beijing, Qingdao and Shanghai, where many South Korean companies operate.
In addition, some prestigious universities have made English a compulsory subject for entrance examination.
As for “traditional China,” the other barrier for a reporter covering northeastern China, I had an opportunity to observe a different aspect of China when I visited a residential complex in central Yanbian, where about 8,000 ethnic Koreans reside.
According to a man who is involved with the Chinese Communist Party, about 950 residents were aged 60 or older, and one-third had children working away from home.
About 90 elderly people live by themselves, and there were children whose parents worked in urban areas. Migrant workers call their family members one after another to move to the urban areas where they worked.
Since around 2009, when such a matter was resolved, local Communist Party members had seriously considered as to how the elderly and children who cannot receive parental love could live happily and comfortably.
There are only 60 caretakers in each district, including party members who live there, far less than the number of the elderly people and children who require help.
There are people who need assistance in going shopping and going to the hospital.
There are homes for the elderly in China, but the cost to stay there is far from affordable for those who rely on money sent from family members who work in the city.
What caretakers came up to cope with the situation was mutual help involving community members, which was a norm in “traditional China.”
Close to the community is a garrison for the troops who patrol the border.
Party members asked them to support the lives of the elderly and children. They also sought to help the elderly residents who are relatively active and students at local universities.
Party members are in charge of shopping, cooking and home repairs on weekdays.
On weekends, or days when there is no military training, soldiers and students visit elderly citizens to chat and children to teach. They also call to check on them.
Soldiers are especially popular among the elderly, who call them “son soldiers” or “brother soldiers.”
Their activities attract attention from other municipalities, and visitors come as far as from the southern province of Yunnan.
A 77-year-old ethnic Korean woman, who lives by herself in an apartment complex, said she was happy there.
“Neighbors and the party member in charge are like my family,” she said. “A ‘son soldier’ who used to be in charge comes to see me even after he was transferred. My children ask me to move, but I like it here.”
It is easy to criticize the district’s measures as “propaganda of the authoritarian government,” a “defect of the Chinese Communist Party’s welfare policy,” or “stopgap measures against too-hasty economic development.”
But there is no time to waste. Older people need help even while waiting for the system to be improved.
I asked a Communist Party member, who guided me to the autonomous prefecture’s efforts, what he thinks about the central government’s policies.
“In such affluent regions as Shanghai and Beijing, local governments chip in to build welfare facilities,” he said. “It should be the central government who does this job. But this prefecture is still too small (to follow the steps of those cities). We are still in the early phases of discussions and conceptualizing.”
Unlike “traditional China,” his answer included critical comments about the government.
Being ashamed of my assumptions, I also felt I had found a clue to overcoming the second barrier.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
- « Prev
- Next »