Twelve years ago, Cao Lei lost his mother, a Xinhua correspondent, in a NATO bombing in Belgrade. On an October weekend of 2011, the 31-year-old was busy editing stories at his Beijing office of Reference News, a newspaper run by Xinhua News Agency, where his mother used to work before her assignment to Belgrade.
“My mother’s death taught me the true nature of being a journalist,” he said. “You would never know what challenges lay ahead. The best way to face it is having firm faith.”
Cao’s mother, Shao Yunhuan, was working for Xinhua’s bureau in Belgrade, then capital of Yugoslavia, when the U.S. air force dropped bombs on the Chinese Embassy on the night of May 7, 1999.
Shao arrived in Belgrade in March 1999, a week before the NATO bombing. Three days before her death, she moved to the embassy to work because power was cut in her own office, caused by intense bombing, and had made it impossible to send out stories.
In Xinhua’s 80-year history, Shao was among more than 150 journalists and staff members who sacrificed their lives for their work.
Xinhua News Agency was founded in 1931, when it started operations in a shabby mud-brick cottage with a radio set seized by the communist-led Red Army in a battle against the army of the Kuomintang government.
Qu Qiubai, a key leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in its early days, was one of the earliest martyrs in the agency’s history.
While the Red Army set out the epic “Long March” in 1934, from southeastern China to the northwestern region, Qu, then Xinhua president, stayed in Jiangxi Province to run the agency and was captured in 1935 and executed months later at the age of 36.
His daughter Qu Duyi, now 90, still remembers the prison days of her father and how he refused to surrender.
“The Kuomintang government had repeatedly sent people to talk with my father and tried to persuade him to leave and denounce the Communist Party. He just refused,” she said. “I remembered he told me that a person cherished his past more than a bird cherished its wings so he would never cut away from his own past.”
Qu Duyi later joined Xinhua and co-founded with her husband Xinhua’s Moscow bureau, the agency’s third foreign bureau.
In the 1940s, more Xinhua reporters died for their mission in the fierce war against the Japanese invasion and the civil war between the Communist Party and Kuomintang armies.
In May 1942, more than 40 reporters, including He Yun, head of Xinhua’s north China bureau, were killed by the Japanese army in a siege in the Taihang Mountains in north Shanxi province.
In April, 1949, months before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Xiao Yi, a Xinhua war reporter and promising young writer, was shot dead on the front lines in north China.
The 34-year-old could have stayed in Beijing, which had been taken by the communist-led People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in January 1949. But he chose to witness and record the ongoing war, also collecting material for his long-planned novel.
Even in the peaceful years after the New China was founded, names were added to the list of Xinhua martyrs.
On April 11, 1955, the chartered plane “Kashmir Princess” crashed into the South China Sea following a bomb explosion on its way from Hong Kong to Jakarta, Indonesia.
Three Xinhua reporters were on board with other Chinese and foreign delegates and reporters who were to attend the Bandung Conference in Indonesia. The bomb was believed to be planted by agents from Taiwan and targeted Zhou Enlai, then China’s premier.
Among the victims, Shen Jiantu, 40, head of Xinhua’s department of domestic news for overseas service, was known for reporting the Korean War.
His son Shen Yimin has a very vague memory of his father, as he was only three in 1955. Even before his death, Shen was always away for work.
“All I knew about my father was from his colleagues and the stories he wrote,” Shen Yimin said.
Over generations, reporters who devoted their lives to the cause of journalism have shaped the tradition of Xinhua, said Li Congjun, president of the Xinhua News Agency.
“Whenever the Party and people need us, Xinhua reporters stand against difficulties and dangers. We don’t hesitate even if we have to devote our lives,” he said.
Today, from Afghanistan to Libya, from Indonesia to Japan, many Xinhua reporters have worked at the front lines of wars, conflicts and serious natural disasters as their predecessors did.
“When I think of her in the deep of night, my heart still painfully hurts, but I will welcome the next morning with smile,” said Cao. “My mother will always be the spiritual support for me.”
The author is a writer at Xinhua and the article is a celebration of the 80th anniversary of founding Xinhua News Agency.