Over 8,000km away from Benghazi, Libya, photographer Cai Yang says, what he experienced in the war-torn North African city was like a dream.
“Peace is heaven,” says Cai, who has a greater appreciation for the hustle and bustle of Beijing following two months of on-and-off photojournalism in Libya.
Chinese correspondents like Cai have become active in war zones and turbulent areas from Libya to Iraq, as media from the world’s second largest economy aim for a global presence.
Compared with war correspondents employed by western press organizations, Chinese journalists often work with less pay and fewer benefits. Cai says media organizations from developed countries often provide bodyguards for their reporters stationed on the frontlines, an advantage he envies.
“I was not doing that for money,” he says. “I just wanted to do my job, because I was there.”
China’s state news agency Xinhua aims to fulfill a strategic shift to become an international multi-media news agency by 2015, according to the 80-year-old agency’s development plan.
War coverage, the forefront of global media competition, has been and remains a significant part of its news content, with generations of reporters telling stories from beyond the safety zone.
Marching with soldiers
Xinhua’s history of war coverage goes back to 1931. The agency started broadcasting from a mud-brick house in the countryside of central China with a radio set seized by the Communist-led Red Army in a battle with Kuomintang forces.
Led by the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xinhua survived the bloody War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), which left at least 110 of its reporters dead.
The agency then experienced the War of Liberation (1946-1949) and shifted the focus of its war coverage to foreign countries after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) restored peace in the country.
“I didn’t even know how to dodge air raids,” 90-year-old Xinhua veteran reporter Shen Dingyi says, recalling his first battlefield experience during the War of Liberation. “I was not afraid, though, just nervous and excited. I was looking forward to victory.”
Led by the CPC, the materially disadvantaged People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fought the U.S.-backed Kuomintang forces in the war, and won.
The mission of Shen and his colleagues at that time was to report on the PLA’s progress in the war, win public support and dampen the Kuomintang’s morale.
Shen was a noncombatant journalist, but harsh conditions allowed him no safety or comfort.
He marched through cornfields in scorching summer heat, slept on the dining tables of hotels or on farmers’ beds, and fed on sorghum most of the time.
Without electricity, stories were written with pens in the dim light of rapeseed oil lamps. Candles were luxury items reserved for senior editors and writers. There were few cameras, except for some seized from Kuomintang forces.
Death was frequent. Shen remembered watching Kuomintang bombers blow up a house just dozens of meters from where he stayed in east China’s Shandong Province. A senior officer was killed in the attack.
“I didn’t feel I was suffering or endangered,” Shen says. “Some colleagues were much closer to the gunfire. Whenever the troops launched a charge, we followed.”
There were more than 100 Xinhua correspondents embedded in Shen’s army unit during the War of Liberation.
None of them asked to leave the frontlines except one, who was too sick to hold out, Shen recalls.
In a diary he kept throughout the war, Shen wrote about cities overwhelmed by gunfire, interviews with depressed Kuomintang captives and heart-warming support from the civilian masses.
“The folks were so nice to us. If I had to die for them, I would,” he says.
Shen says he was driven by his determination to save the Chinese people from the Kuomintang’s corruption and oppression.
When it came to the Korean War (1950-1953), what supported Xinhua reporters was the will to defend the motherland against U.S. military threats.
Xinhua sent more than 50 journalists to the first war the newborn-PRC engaged in on foreign soil.
“Fear was not on my mind,” says 82-year-old Xinhua retiree Zhang Jie, who covered the bitterest battle of the Korean War. “It was my job to tell the world what went on there.”
Zhang was one of those documenting a 43-day battle at Shangganling, where over 100,000 soldiers fought over an area of less than four square kilometers.
Chinese soldiers dug tunnels in the hills to defend themselves against the relentless bombing by U.S.-backed multinational forces, but dangers loomed.
Zhang says he was used to hearing the dull roars of explosions and fleeting air raids with his unfinished lunch in hand. He even narrowly escaped death once when a shell splinter thrust into a wall just beside him.
“Xinhua’s coverage was a big success,” Zhang says proudly. “Our countrymen were encouraged by the stories of our victories and war heroes. They came to be confident that China could win, even if it was against America.”
The Voice of China
While China is no longer involved in warfare, Xinhua has continued moving some of its greatest talent and resources to war and areas embroiled in conflict throughout the world, aiming to have the voice of China heard on global issues.
Unlike older generations who grew up in turbulent eras, Li Jizhi panicked when he saw bodies charred by a car bomb attack in front of the Jordanian Embassy in Iraq in August 2003.
“My legs lost strength, my mind was blank,” Li recalls of his first experience covering conflict after being sent to Iraq by Xinhua following the invasion of the U.S. forces.
Frightened as he was, Li managed to report the incident faster than any other foreign media.
Although he was a young Chinese man raised in peace and prosperity, Li soon grew used to violence.
The sound of mortar attacks became his wake-up call. He was once trapped in crossfire that lasted several hours in Baghdad, without the help of local interpreters or communications devices.
“Fear made no difference. All I could do was to cherish every living moment. I would be more frustrated with myself if I ran away,” Li says.
Xinhua currently has more than 100 overseas branches, including those in turbulent areas.
Correspondents like Li now have modern offices and apartments, cover conflicts wearing helmets and bulletproof vests, and work with cameras, laptops and satellite phones.
However, dangers continue to haunt them. Explosions and gunfire have damaged Xinhua’s offices in violence-prone regions like Kabul, Baghdad and Gaza in recent years.
Hong Man, Xinhua’s chief correspondent in the Gaza Strip from 2006 to 2008, prefers civilians’ stories and feelings to eye-catching clash scenes.
She is most impressed by a scene of Israeli and Palestinian women, hand-in-hand, protesting violence and demanding peace. Another interview she remembers well involved Palestinian men in the West Bank, who held on to a primitive way of life in mountain caves to defend their land against Israel’s construction of settlements.
When conflicts erupted in Gaza, Hong would race with her peers, carrying a backpack weighed down by 5 to 10 kg of several camera lenses and other equipment. She dropped 10 kg of body weight during her tenure.
For Hong, Xinhua has good reason to send its own reporters to the most dangerous areas -- China needs its eyes opened and voices heard.
“More Chinese people are eager to know what’s going on in the world now that China is economically stronger. Western media’s account of conflicts is just one side of the story. They can no longer meet the demands of the Chinese audience,” she says.
According to Hong, the influence of China and its media is evident by the fact that Xinhua’s correspondents are present in even the most turbulent parts of the world now.
Xinhua correspondents in conflict zones wear a vest with “Chinese Press” written in Arabic on the back. The vest offers protection as China’s non-interference in foreign issues often saves journalists from being targeted by hatred or involved in politically driven abductions.
“The vest helped us a lot in Iraq. Some foreign journalists even wanted to buy one from us,” Li Jizhi says.
The authors work with Xinhua News Agency.