Well-known journalist Jaime FlorCruz retired from his post as CNN Beijing bureau chief last December 2015, and I wondered how his retirement been going. I had the privilege of meeting him when he was in Toronto and I wrote about his story in 2010.
My meeting with Mr. FlorCruz made me see him as a real person who is down-to-earth, accommodating, chill and easy person to be with, as a professional or even just as a private individual. With that in mind, I pulled my courage to get in touch with him to know what life is for him, after CNN – post retirement.
Lo and behold! This retiree is not pursuing a new hobby to kill time. He is still out and about, busy and going.
“When I retired as CNN Beijing bureau chief last December 2015, I thought I’d be slowing down and saunter into the sunset. Not quite. The past two years still have kept me busy,” says FlorCruz.
This year, his plate is full as the China chairman of the Fortune Global Forum.
“I was recently hired by Fortune/Time Inc to serve as the China chairman of the Fortune Global Forum (FGF) to be held in Guangzhou, China on Dec 6-8, 2017. The FGF is a conference business of Fortune. I will be responsible for government relations and the conference themes and panels. It will keep me busy through the end of the year,” relates FlorCruz.
After his retirement from CNN, FlorCruz worked on his book that is expected to be published this year.
“I’ve spent time writing as small book focused on my years as a history department student at Peking University (1977-82) commissioned by Penguin China. The working title is The Class of 1977 and talks about that historical period (one year after Mao died, the year when Deng Xiaoping returned to power as paramount leader, the year when China restored the competitive national college entrance examinations.) I’ve finished the draft and hope it gets published later this year,” says FlorCruz.
Besides writing the book, he is now bringing his experience, knowledge and wisdom into the academe. He had been going back and forth the Philippines and China, giving talks and lectures.
“I give a lecture at Polytechnic University of the Philippines, my alma mater, as a professorial chair they gave me. I talked about my experiences as a reporter and a comparison of Chinese and Philippine media and their respective roles in shaping public opinion and policies,” says he.
He adds, “Last fall (Sept-December 2016), I taught a semester as visiting professor at the School of Journalism and Communications at Peking University. Half of my 34 students were Chinese, half from various countries. I taught about media in China and overseas, the power of images and sounds, and news literacy (distinguishing news, opinions, propaganda and infomercial); how new technology and social media are changing the way news and information are gathered, disseminated and consumed. It’s an elective course taught in English, as the school preferred.”
He will teach the same course starting April 5. The students will include undergraduates enrolled at Stanford who spend a trimester at Peking University.
In between his teaching stints, FlorCruz have travelled to Europe, the US and to various places in the Philippines.
He says,” This is the best part of semi-retirement: to be able to lock and go our apartment and travel at our own pace. We have a long list of places to visit, to learn and to share. It’s been a great feeling not to be “on call” all the time (in case there is breaking news). It’s been nice to read the news or read books not because I need to for work as reporter but because I like to. It’s good to be able to get off the “horse” and touch and smell the flowers along the way, instead of just galloping past them.”
At 66, FlorCruz is nowhere near retirement with the way his career is going. He is continuously being sought after and soaring high.
‘Jaime FlorCruz, Blessed with Luck’
“You have to be blessed with luck,” this is how, jokingly or seriously, Jaime FlorCruz, CNN’s Beijing Bureau Chief answered The Philippine Reporter, when asked about how to succeed in his field.
It is understandable why FlorCruz responded that way after relating his ordeal and inspiring journey, before getting to where he is now.
In 1971, a Philippine youth delegation composed of 15 student leaders were invited to go on a study-tour in China sponsored by the China Friendship Association. The visit was only intended for a three-week tour but while in China, the political situation in the Philippines changed abruptly after then President Ferdinand Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus – which allowed the regime to detain political opponents indefinitely. The youth leaders got stranded.
Due to the unstable political condition in the Philippines, along with the likelihood of getting arrested if they go back to Manila, the Filipino students faced a difficult decision: to stay in China or go back home.
“It was an individual, heart-breaking decision whether to go home or stay behind,” relates FlorCruz.
“I was one of the five students who couldn’t go home because we were on a blacklist,” says FlorCruz, then a 20-year old student leader at the Philippine College of Commerce and president of League of Editors for a Democratic Society (LEADS), a national organization of student editors.
“The bombings in the Philippines in 1971 changed my life,” says FlorCruz during a meeting with the press. “Days later, our hosts brought Philippine newspapers to China, for us to get information about the suspension of the writ and the rampant arrests.”
CNN’s Beijing Bureau Chief Jaime FlorCruz (center, standing) with officers and members of Philippine Press Club of Ontario.
Life in Beijing
Few months had passed and there was still no window of hope that the five men who chose to stay behind can go home safely.
“After several weeks in limbo, we developed a Cabin Fever Syndrome, in which little things irritated each one of us. It wasn’t healthy, so we decided to work, it’s time to escape (from boredom).”
FlorCruz volunteered to work at the state farm in Hunan Province, Mao Zedong’s hometown, for almost a year and subsequently in a fishing corporation in Shandong Province.
“It was an exciting work at first, and that experience made me realize that farming is not an easy task,” says he.
In September 1972, Martial Law was declared in the Philippines, so it shut the door for FlorCruz and his companions from going home soon.
“It was a series of hope and disappointment. For those who went home, they knew what they were facing, but for us who stayed in Beijing, we didn’t know how long the wait was going to be,” recounted FlorCruz. “We resigned ourselves to long years of exile.”
After the Martial Law declaration, FlorCruz became stateless because his Philippine passport expired and there was no way yet to renew it.
Due to the worsening situation in the Philippines, instead of losing hope and staying mentally stagnant, Flor-Cruz, decided to preoccupy himself with ‘China Watching.’
“I learned about the current events in China, the leaders, culture and the language. I borrowed an English-Chinese dictionary from an interpreter,” relates FlorCruz.
To learn the language in Beijing, he copied a borrowed English-Chinese dictionary by hand. That started in earnest his serious efforts to learn the Chinese language. Now he speaks Mandarin virtually like a native.
The craving for education, this time for Chinese learning, was strong with FlorCruz, who is of pure Filipino blood. He studied at the Beijing Languages Institute, where he completed a three-year Mandarin and translation degree in two years.
In 1982, he received his B.A. in Chinese history from Peking University in addition to a B.A. in advertising degree at Philippine College of Commerce (now the Polytechnic University of the Philippines) he earned in 1971.
While studying, FlorCruz also taught English to Chinese professors at least twice a week at Peking University and to college students at Peking Normal College. He also taught English songs in a Chinese national TV program “Let’s Sing.” He is also known for translating the lyrics of the famous Filipino song, “Bayan Ko” into Chinese.
The start of a Beijing career
According to FlorCruz, the normalization of China-U.S. diplomatic relations in the late 1970s paved way for many American media organizations to set up bureaus in Beijing.
Through the encouragement of a friend, Jan Wong, then working as a news for New York Times, FlorCruz was hired as a news assistant for Newsweek magazine even as he was still finishing his graduation thesis at Peking University. In that role, he read English and Chinese publications and clipped and filed interesting stories. He initially worked 12 hours a week.
His then boss, Beijing Bureau Chief Melinda Liu, encouraged him to write for the magazine. That gave him a foothold into the media profession in China.
“My big break came during the trial of the Gang of Four.”
His boss asked him to report on trial, he was resourceful enough to come up with a story that clicked with Newsweek. His reports contained telling vignettes based on the accounts of one of his students who was a son of the judge in the trial.
“For two consecutive weeks I got a byline in Newsweek,” says he.
In 1982, he became a full-pledged journalist joining the TIME Magazine’s Beijing bureau as a reporter and promoted to Bureau Chief in 1990 to 2000. After which he joined the CNN as the Beijing Bureau Chief.
In 1989, he also co-wrote the book “Massacre at Beijing”, a paperback that chronicled the student protests that shook China in the late 1980s which ended in a bloody crackdown in Tienanmen in June 1989.
FlorCruz is considered the dean of foreign correspondents in China. He has served as as the president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China for two terms.
FlorCruz was also a recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2000. He was the first non-American to receive the prestigious fellowship.
“That time the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow was only offered to American nationals. So when I was awarded the fellowship. they had to modify a rule that specifies that it’s for Americans only. From then on it’s now open to anyone who works for a major media organization available in the U.S.,” shared FlorCruz.
When he joined CNN in 2001, FlorCruz said he had little training for on-air television reporting. “I was put through basic training in New York and Washington and, days later, sent back to Beijing as CNN’s correspondent and Bureau Chief.” He said he had to apply Mao’s philosophy of “you’ll learn swimming while swimming.”
“I never imagined myself in front of a camera,” added FlorCruz.
Journalism in China
Like any other media practice in different countries, FlorCruz, believes that in terms of press freedom, China is not alone in its practice.
“There are restrictions. It’s still difficult, but it’s changing for the better due to the gradual but dramatic opening up in China and the growing sophistication of media handlers there,” says FlorCruz.
With media practice such as “attack and collect, defend and collect (ACDC)” (a phrase famous in the Philippine media), “taxi money” for press people exists in China. These also exist in other countries where there are corrupt media practitioners.
Overall, despite these discouraging practices, FlorCruz says, “It’s a rewarding thing to do, to cover events in such an important country,” with satisfaction of his experience as a media practitioner in China. He added, China gave him an invaluable experience. “I have a front-row seat to a history in the making,” he says. “It’s cool.”
For many people, this could be an understatement, coming from the CNN Beijing Bureau Chief who started his journey as a young student exile in a foreign country whose language he had never spoken before. For sure, he had more than luck to be able to achieve this feat; a tough spirit to survive and excel, not to mention to stay sane, being one of them.
(Note: This article was originally published at http://philippinereporter.com/2010/08/16/jaime-florcruz-blessed-with-luck/)