Peter Hessler, preeminent China writer, on teaching at Sichuan University in the age of COVID-19
Why did Peter Hessler leave China, after a year of teaching at Sichuan University? The author of four beloved China books talked about his latest work in Egypt, teaching at Sichuan University, China’s unique situation during COVID-19, and the real reasons for his departure on the Sinica Podcast.
Editor’s note: Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast episode with Peter Hessler.
The acclaimed author of empathetic books about China didn’t plan to write when he went to teach freshman comp at Sichuan University. But he felt an “obligation as a writer” to document China’s unique situation as COVID-19 became a pandemic.
Hessler appeared on the Sinica Podcast live at The China Project’s NEXTChina conference on November 11, and discussed his latest book, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, his approach to writing on China, his interactions with his students, and the real reasons for his departure from China.
Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to this special live edition of the Sinica Podcast, coming to you from our NEXTChina conference at the China Institute in downtown Manhattan. Make some noise, New York. Thank you! This is all done in the interest of embarrassing our guest, anyway — and Jeremy. I am Kaiser Kuo, joined of course by Jeremy Goldkorn, editor-in-chief of The China Project, who I haven’t seen in person since what, late 2019? I think it was, almost two years now. Jeremy has so far avoided being subpoenaed by the January 6th committee. And I ask that if anyone in the audience is actually here to serve him that you please wait until we are done with this recording. And then he will gladly accompany you in or out of handcuffs. I want to also say, on his behalf, that he deeply regrets his role in the insurrection. Meanwhile, greet the people before your days are through.
Jeremy Goldkorn: Thank you. It’s good to have a chance to speak to the public before my incarceration.
Kaiser: Yeah, anyway, I cannot tell you how thrilled we are, both of us, really, to have with us our guest, Peter Hessler, right here, in the flesh on stage.
Jeremy: Peter is, of course, a correspondent for the New Yorker and a prolific author. He is the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship — that one for geniuses — and until earlier this year was teaching journalism at the University of Sichuan in Chengdu. His spare and elegant prose, his keen powers of observation, and his dedication to the craft have earned him a reputation as the preeminent foreign chronicler of China. Pete, I’m so glad you could join us here for this. I think the last time I saw you was, in fact, in Beijing, in Ju’er Hutong, about 15 years ago. So this has been a long time coming.
Peter Hessler: Yeah, it’s been a long time. No, thanks so much for having me and thanks to the China Institute and to The China Project. It’s great to be here.
Kaiser: Yeah. Fantastic. Peter is the author of, to date, five fantastic books: Rivertown, Oracle Bones, Country Driving, Strange Stones, and The Buried: An Archeology of the Egyptian Revolution.
Jeremy: And to make us feel at home, as residents of Beijing during the economic boom, there is, of course, some renovation going on immediately above our heads.
Kaiser: That familiar sound, and this seems always to curse us wherever we go, there’s renovation. Anyway, for those of you who haven’t read the latest one, The Buried, you’re probably imagining, “Hey, this is a book about Egypt. It doesn’t really have anything to do with China.” Think again, it’s unbelievably interesting. It told me so much about China. So that’s actually what I want to get into first and talk a little bit about that particular book. So after many years in China, from the mid-1990s, when you were in the Peace Corps in China, you and your wife, Leslie T. Chang, the writer, Leslie Chang, left in 2007, I believe it was. And then you spent some time stateside, and then went to Cairo in the midst of the Tahrir Square Uprising. It was in October and…
Peter: Yeah, we moved there in October 2011.
Kaiser: Right. I want to start with The Buried because, for somebody like me reading it, it added this perspective that I think is lost on a lot of people who look at China. And the astonishing extent of revolutionary change that has happened in China, I think for people, and I’ll have to confess that I would include myself here, I’ve tended to focus more on the 40-plus years of the reform and opening. And have thought about the first 30 years as sort of an abyss of horribleness, just have focused only on, sort of, the missteps. It sort of told the narrative about the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. And what really woke me up in your book was how you looked at how different Egypt was, because it hadn’t undergone a revolution of that proportion. So can you talk a little bit about that and how it might have changed your own thinking on China?
Peter: Yeah. I mean, one of the reasons that we decided to go to Egypt is we wanted another perspective other than what we had as Americans and as people who had lived in China and we wanted to go to the Middle East because this was an important part of the world. We actually didn’t move there because of the revolution, that just happened to happen as we were making our plans to go. And so we followed through and went there, but it was fascinating of course, to be in the middle of this political event. And of course, something I had never witnessed in China, but it does make you think a lot about the idea of revolution, the idea of change. You realize also most of what we think of as revolutions turn out to be coups, which is basically what happened in Egypt.
Peter: It wasn’t something that really turned out to be revolutionary in terms of the change, especially in terms of society. But there were so many, almost one-to-one comparisons of experiences in China, to give you an example. One of my projects in China was often to try to look at things at the lowest level, at the grassroots level. And I tried to do the same thing in Egypt and toward the end, I followed an election in a village in Upper Egypt in the South and it was really fascinating because there was a clan in that village that had always been powerful. And during the national democratic party, the NDP days, they had a candidate who was aligned with the NDP and he would win the local elections and go to the parliament in Cairo. After the revolution, they had a candidate who was seen as sort of close to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists and he won the election and went to the parliament.
Then after the coup in 2013 and the Islamists were thrown out and then Sisi and the military were back in charge. They align themselves immediately with them and you could watch. This clan would take whatever was happening at the top and just sort of use it to their own devices. And the local power structure remained stable and I compared that when we lived outside of Beijing, when I had a home in a village there.
The local Party secretary was a woman who was an outsider. She wasn’t from the local clan. She had married into the clan, but not to a very powerful person, but it sort of showed you the power of the party, went all the way down to that lowest level. Where they decide the person for this village is not going to be from the clan, it’s not even going to be a man. And when she was there, you sort of understood why was in charge. She was really strong, charismatic. She was somewhat corrupt, but also quite capable. And you could see that somehow they had the structures that would choose who they wanted there and they were in control, even at that lowest level. So it made me realize how deep these changes had been in China and what we were witnessing in Egypt was often kind of right on the surface.
Jeremy: Peter, a device you’ve used to wonderful effect in your books, especially in Rivertown and The Buried, which are your introduction to your first time in China and in Egypt, respectively, is learning language acquisition. And I think it works very well to bring the reader along. I mean, Rivertown particularly made sense to me since I also was ’94, ’95, first in China learning Chinese, but it works very well in The Buried. Can you talk about the importance to you of learning a language as somebody who’s going to then write about the place you’re living in?
Peter: Yeah. I mean it is fundamental. It’s also just enjoyable. Yesterday actually, when I came in from the airport, my cab driver was from the Faiyum in Egypt. So an Egyptian cab driver, and we were talking about the brotherhood and he’s like, khedebin! which is this word you always heard. The liars, they’re liars, and it’s just great to be able to… You never know when you’re going to use one of these languages. I actually grew up without learning languages. I grew up in Missouri and when I was a small child, my family had a year of sabbatical in Sweden and I sort of learned a little bit of that, but that was it. So I felt this was really missing in my education. And one of the reasons I joined the Peace Corps was because of language and it became so fundamental to the experience in the Peace Corps because if you didn’t learn Chinese, you really were lonely in those towns.
I mean, there were two foreigners there, if you didn’t speak Chinese, you were just so limited. So a lot of us worked really hard at it. And I tried to describe that process in Rivertown and in the course of writing about it, I realized how important it was to me. And so when we went to Cairo, that was also one of our priorities. I think when we talk about identity, when I talk to students in America, I often mention this, we have very strong ideas about your ethnic identity, your gender, all these things, they shape your perspective and who you are very important to think about these. I think it’s also important to think about your linguistic identity. What are the languages that go through your head? That also shapes who you are, but one of the nice things about that is it’s not permanent, it doesn’t lead to essentialism. You can learn a new language and you can change who you are and change your viewpoint. And so that was always one of my priorities in these places.
Kaiser: How important do you think it is for foreign correspondents right now, working in a foreign environment, to be able to speak a local language? And I mean, I noticed that these days, a lot of the young reporters are very good. They’re very steeped in Chinese.
Peter: I mean, they put our era to shame. And I mean, I think China though, was unusual. China, even when we were there, I mean, it always impressed me as a place where people really engaged with the language, wanted to learn it. That’s pretty unusual. It wasn’t the case in Cairo. Most of the foreign correspondence my age and Leslie’s age, were not working in Arabic the way that we were. And I think that’s sort of a shame, but it is a special thing about being in China.
Kaiser: So you have, over the years, laid the foundations for what I assume is going to be your true Magnum Opus. You have followed a cohort of… Well, I mean, the makings of a longitudinal study. Across a quarter-century, you’ve known these students that you taught in Fuling back in the nineties and you’ve tracked their lives. You’ve stayed in touch with over 100 of them, is that correct?
Kaiser: And so I understand that your forthcoming piece in The New Yorker is going to be about them and about the disparate paths their lives have traced. What can you tell us about this? Can you give us a sneak preview? And maybe give us a couple of anecdotes of people who ended up on the cutting room floor and weren’t in your story.
Peter: Yeah. I mean, I think even actually when we were there in Fuling, I arrived there in 1996, you could really sense that this was an important generation. You even had that feeling, even as a kid, I was only 27 years old. Because they were all from the countryside. These kids, more than 80% of them, by ’99 more than 90% of them had grown up in villages. Almost always either the first or second person from the village to go to college. A good percentage of them had illiterate parents, but now they were college students and there was that incredible moment. Because when you go to the University, your hukou becomes a city hukou. You are a city person, but we were watching the beginning of that process. They still looked like rural kids, they still thought like rural kids.
But they were going in a different direction. And I was very fortunate because after I left, I went back to Beijing pretty quickly. And once I was in Beijing, I had written down the addresses of all these kids. And so I would write a letter every six months to all my students. And then in those days, I mean, I was writing addresses by hand in Chinese, which took me forever, but that was the start of staying in touch with them.
And eventually, once people got phones and email, of course, it got easier and they read my writing and you know, this became part of our sort of conversation in our relationship. So I’ve stayed in touch with them to the point where I do surveys with them or I ask questions about different aspects of their lives. One thing that’s really amazing to me is how many of them are still in education, probably more than 90% are still teaching. And I mean, if you took a group of training teachers in some country and a quarter-century later, that’s still what they’re doing, that’s unusual. So, that’s very striking to me.
Kaiser: Well I mean, I chalk that up in part to the observer effect. You were an influence on their lives, right? I mean, look, they count themselves as like this, “We few, we proud.” And the rest of them can hold their lives cheaply or whatever.
Jeremy: If they weren’t —
Kaiser: They weren’t there on…
Peter: I mean, it reflects that they’re pretty decent jobs actually and also that education is respected in China. It’s incredibly flawed and they’re very critical, actually, of the system in a lot of ways.
Kaiser: So, now where have they gone? I mean, where have some of them headed off to and what have they done with their lives?
Peter: Most of them are in Sichuan or Chongqing but there’s people in Shanghai and Zhejiang. I’ve got a bunch of students in Tibet actually. Like the kid who played Hamlet that I wrote about in Rivertown. He’s been in Tibet for 20 years.
Kaiser: And did they hang onto those kooky names that they picked in the nineties? The English names that they came up with?
Peter: Yeah. Most of them have the same names. Because they had, of course, had named themselves. So you would have a boy named Daisy and all sorts of crazy names.
Kaiser: I had a “Devil” working for me in…
Jeremy: I think we both knew Billboard, who worked in advertising.
Peter: Oh yeah. They’re also like cruel. I remember there was somebody, one of the Peace Corps people, got a class of kids who had been taught by some sadist and all of them were named after cigarette brands. It was like Winston. Because…
Kaiser: American Spirits.
Jeremy: So it’s sort of related, you, Pete, and Kaiser and me are of a certain age, the age where Kaiser and I were on some show with a guest who was an adult that I thought was kind of our age. And he said, “Oh, you were in Tang Dynasty, right? To Kaiser. My mom was a fan of your band when she was a girl.” So anyway, we have a certain perspective, but you have an even greater perspective on the question of generational change, I think, because of your students who are now also educators. What can you say about generational change in China? How different are the young people of today from…
Kaiser: You were teaching freshman comp at Sichuan University, right? So you had college students from either side of a 25-year divide.
Peter: Yeah. So we went back, I moved back to Chengdu in 2019, which was 21 years after I left Fuling. And actually I’d never taught during that time and so I went back and taught again. And one of the reasons for doing this was I was interested in, of course seeing how the region had changed. That’s why I wanted to be in Sichuan. I wanted to have contact with my students from Fuling, but I was also curious what it’s like to be at a university now and what young Chinese people seem like. And so that idea of generations was just incredibly vivid. I mean, one of my Fuling students had a son at Chuanda (Sichuan University) when I was there. He was in the Chinese department and I met him and talked with him.
And I did think about this a lot and I mean, it’s so different. I mean, I wrote in one of my pieces, how the size was one thing that jumped out at me, right? Because now suddenly these kids are taller than me and all the classes, I would show them a picture of me with my Fuling students and I’m like towering over them. Like 5’9” and a half and I was like, “Why have I gotten so much shorter?” And they would all laugh, but you would see things like that, which in a way it’s very visceral. This is a physical change. You see the reduction of poverty is no longer an abstract thing. And most of the kids I taught were from the cities and the other huge part of this generation is what we call the one-child policy, right? The jìhuà shēngyù 计划生育 which in most of those urban areas, limited families. And most of my students from Fuling had only one child and now we realize that’s kind of a window. It’s probably going to be different. It’s a very special generation. And the kids I was teaching were those single children. So I thought about this a lot. I mean, I think you often have a lot of ideas of what it means to be an only child. And you hear about the little emperors and this sort of thing. I was sort of struck. These were not spoiled kids. They were urban kids, they were often prosperous, but even the ones that came from money, they weren’t spoiled. I was sort of surprised by how hard they work.
I mean, in some ways in China, I felt like that all the time. It’s like, “You guys are still doing this. When are you going to back off?” If anything, it’s gotten more intense. You bring your car and you get to the oil change and you’re getting on your WeChat, a picture of every stage of what they’re… Somebody’s taking a picture when he’s opening this valve and doing that. And it’s like, “I don’t need the 15 photographs documenting my oil change.” But everybody’s like in this… And then my kids were the same way I would have them do reporting. So, I taught journalism and so they went off and did reporting projects and they got to choose what they were doing. And I mean, I had a kid, I remember a freshman, he goes to McDonald’s at like six in the evening and stays there until seven in the morning to see who’s at McDonald’s all night long.
And he writes about the prostitutes and the drunk guys and there was kind of like migrant-type laborers who are cold, who go in there to sleep and the delivery guys, really fascinating. But I mean, this kid was willing to… And I found that in general, they were really good reporters. They were so hard working. So that certainly impressed me. I think the other big difference is just awareness. And in Fuling days, people, of course they weren’t aware of much of the outside world, but they also didn’t understand how a lot of things worked in China in that generation.
And I felt like the kids now, of course, Chuanda (Sichuan University) is a higher-level university, but they were quite aware, they were very savvy. They already knew the system quite well. And it often made me wonder, I mean, these guys who know the system and are already so knowledgeable, does that mean that when they get bigger, they’re going to change the system? Or does it just mean that they get better at going along with the system? And I used to ask them that and there was no conclusion, right? I mean, I think you can sort of see it both ways.
Kaiser: So Pete, I think if you talk to anyone in China, who’s even glancingly familiar with your writing, you’ll hear a lot of praise. And often it’ll come from people who I know who are quite prickly about the way that China is portrayed in English language media. But when it comes to you, they’re very warm and they feel… I mean, I suppose in today’s parlance, they would say they feel “seen” by you. They feel like there’s a real empathy in your writing. And I think that’s in evidence just from your remarks right now. I don’t think there are many people, I know there are some, certainly a handful, but who can write about the quintessential weirdness of China today, some of the weird shit that happens in China, and do it without ever tipping into mean-spiritedness. I mean, that is a real talent. You can still get a good chuckle out of the reader, but it’s never at the expense of the Chinese people. But you contrast that with how you are received in Egypt, by people who are in the same, analogous socioeconomics class, right? Whenever I meet an Egyptian intellectual, I’ll bring your name up and then instantly I’m greeted with, “Oh, that guy.” Eye roll. And to me it’s the same approach. It seems to me, the exact approach to your writing. What gives? What’s the reason for that?
Peter: I could just be better at China than at Egypt, but I think there isn’t really the same socioeconomic group. It’s very different because elite Egyptians and educated Egyptians are often quite… The class divides in Egypt are really broad. And this reflects a country that has a much longer and sort of deeper colonial history than anything China could imagine. To the point where many elites are not educated in Arabic, right? It’s very common to meet an elite Egyptian who really doesn’t read or write Arabic very well. And even middle-class people often, or even lower middle, the guy that ran the kiosk got in front of my house, his kids were being educated in English. So there was this kind of gap. And I felt like often the very elite, very westernized Egyptians, there was this sort of insecurity about their own culture, but there was also a real snobbishness about the lower classes and in a condescension.
I mean, the thing that really outraged people there was, I wrote an article about my garbage man in Cairo, because he would go around and he’s an illiterate man, more than 25% of the population in Egypt. And he would collect people’s garbage and the first time actually I noticed him was because he came to me with Chinese weige. It was like he had found Chinese Viagra in the garbage. And he knew I spoke Chinese, which I didn’t understand how he already knew this, but he came to me with this thing, what is this? How do you use it? And then periodically he would come to me with all kinds of stuff.
Kaiser: Let me show you.
Peter: So I asked him, I was like, “Well, where’d you get this?” He’s like, “Oh, from a guy who died.” And I was thinking, did he take the medicine and die? He’s like, “Oh no. He was old. He was old.” Anyway, but he would come to me with anything kind of foreign that he found the garbage and I’m just getting this incredible window into my neighbors and all the people around. And I realize this guy really knows a lot and he was also incredibly intelligent. Even though he never went to a day of school, very sharp. And he was just funny and interesting guy and Leslie and I both got a kick out of him and I ended up writing a story about him. And the story of course, was fact-checked as it always is in the New Yorker with an Arabic speaker. After it was published, I had somebody translate it and read it to him and he was perfectly happy with it, but all kinds of people were outraged on his behalf.
Peter: And so they just thought that I had taken advantage of him because this guy is a poor literate person and you wrote about him. And as far as I’m concerned, he has agency, he knew what I was doing. I mean, one of the people who complained was a neighbor who actually worked for a prominent American NGO. And I mentioned to him, I said, “She’s really upset about this story.” And he’s like, “They only pay me 30 pounds every month for picking up their garbage. And every time they do it, they have me sign this little form.”
He’s like, “I know why they do that. Because they’re expensing that to their company. And they still only pay me 30 pounds.” He was like, “This is the person who was outraged on his behalf.” But to me that was sort of very telling.
Kaiser: So I mean, rarefied elites performing outrage indignation on behalf of a subaltern with whom they have no personal connection, that’s something completely unfamiliar and alien to me. I can’t imagine that.
Peter: So I think that’s part of it. There is this class difference. There’s also just a general confidence difference. I feel actually if Rivertown had been published in Chinese in 2001, when it was published in English, I don’t think the reaction would’ve been as positive. It came out 10 years later and time moves very fast in China and people were a little bit nostalgic about that period. They were also more confident. The Chinese were very hard on Pearl S. Buck who I think really knew what she was… She was a brilliant speaker of Chinese and really knew. And I think The Good Earth is a really good book. And Chinese intellectuals at that time were just withering about her. Some of it was probably sexism, but some of it was also just a lack of confidence. So I think China’s kind of in a different place in terms of how they see themselves.
Jeremy: But Pete, I think there’s also something about your writing that worked in China at that time. Because I remember before I moved to China, the books that I read, I mean, if I think of a typical sort of work of travel writing or journalism, I think of Colin Thubron or Paul Theroux, like Riding the Iron Rooster. I mean, Chinese people were very much the other. They were very exotic and strange and either because they were Chinese or because they were communist and Rivertown was the first book I read that I was like, “Oh those are the Chinese people I know that are actually kind of regular human beings.” Whereas, I mean, the Egyptians and the Arab world has been written about badly and well for hundreds of years. I think perhaps with more complexity than China. Does that make any sense?
Peter: I don’t know. I mean, yeah. I mean, I think also when you talk about that moment that we were in China, it was also a moment when it was really possible to get to know people on this level, right? I mean, I think for the earlier generation, it was very hard. You couldn’t go to a place like Fuling and sort of get to know people at this level where you’re going to their weddings and getting to know their children and sort of staying in touch with them the way I’ve done. So I think it was a unique moment.
Jeremy: Can we talk about entrepreneurs? I know we’re kind of running out of time, but I really want to ask you Pete about entrepreneurs because we have literary types here and we also have business people. Let’s see if we can please them both. I know that you, like me, have a genuine appreciation for the ingenuity and the work ethic of Chinese entrepreneurs. You’ve written about many of them and I always find that delightful. People like the grassroots guys in your piece on the Chinese merchants, selling to Americans via Amazon.
Kaiser: That was amazing. That was such a great piece,
Jeremy: Really fun piece. You also wrote about a much more successful entrepreneur Luo Li, who along with his brothers started the whole Western and style cake industry in China, wedding cakes and birthday cakes, and who now operates a ski resort you visited. Can you talk about him a little bit? And what is it that your stories about these entrepreneurs, what do they say about China?
Peter: He was amazing. I mean, we went to their resort, some of the Olympic events are going to be held around there. This is up in Hebei and I didn’t really know anything about him and I went to interview him. But we live close to skiing in Colorado, we live close to Telluride and have friends in Aspen. You’re kind of used to what the ski mogul is like. The guy that was in this industry. And I sat down with Luo Li and he’s very handsome, very charismatic, and he always dresses in all white. That was like his trademark color. And he is just chain-smoking the whole time, which is what you would not do in Aspen or Telluride. And it was really just amazing his whole story, because he had grown up in this asbestos town. Shimian right? In Sichuan, which the name is literally asbestos and his parents worked in asbestos mine and somehow this —
Jeremy: So he couldn’t care about this —
Kaiser: You lived in Leadville, Colorado.
Peter: So he had this background and he had built this empire and then he got interested in skiing and he was just losing a fortune. He just loved it. And he was trying to build this resort and then somebody had told me, “Oh, he’s off in there cleaning the dining hall.” And I was like, “That’s not going to be true,” right? I’m sure he did it for… And they showed me a film of him doing this. But sure enough, every day that we went there to lunch at the ski resort, he was somewhere bussing tables in all white wearing his outfit and I mean, sometimes people knew him and they were kind of going up and saying hi. But a lot of times you’d see them off in a corner and nobody’s paying any attention to him at all.
And he’s just wiping the floor. It’s just unbelievable. So I mean, there is this sort of humility, at least to that generation of Chinese entrepreneurs. It may be fading, I’m not sure, but the people that you talk about that we kind of grew up with, you would see these guys on the ground level. But also just there’s that kind of quickness that is really fun when you’re watching. When you talk about the Amazon guy that I wrote about in The New Yorker. I was doing reporting in Chengdu at the beginning of the pandemic and I was talking to this guy who was selling shoes in the American market on Amazon. And he talked about how, when the stimulus checks went out, he noticed a spike.
Kaiser: That was great.
Peter: And it was like, wow. So after that I was like, “Okay, I’m not going to put him in this story. I want to wait and see how this turns out.” But the flexibility of somebody like that was amazing. Because at that time he told me, he’s like, “The American market is going to be dead. They’re not handling the pandemic well, and we’re going to turn to the Chinese market.” Made sense at the time. This was in April, I think it was — 2020, but then I go back and talk to him the month and a half later. He’s like, “Nope, the numbers don’t say that. And we’re barely holding on. America’s going to be even bigger.” But you could see him just kind of in real-time making these really big, brave changes. Because he started this whole other operation and then he abandoned it and that’s kind of what it takes, I think, to be an entrepreneur there. It’s incredibly competitive.
Kaiser: We should talk about your time in Chengdu, right? And how you ended up there. Jeremy, do you want to?
Jeremy: Yeah. This is the question, I guess. The million-dollar question in some ways that many people in the community observing China are eager to know. What can you tell us about the circumstances surrounding your somewhat untimely departure from Chengdu?
Peter: I mean, I should probably talk a little bit about why we went there. So we went there in 2019, as I mentioned, I was interested in being in the same region. I was interested in teaching again after 20 years. I actually was not interested in writing in that I started writing with the New Yorker in 2020, it’s demanding to sort of be… I’ve never had a salary basically during that time. You’re just going from piece to piece and I wanted a little bit of space actually. I also feel like journalism, sometimes, you can be just always the observer and always at a distance and it’s nice to sometimes be connected to an institution, especially as a foreign correspondent, I think you can lose that and I felt like it might be good to be part of a University community and to have students again. And so actually my plan was not to write. I was just going to teach and it’s because of that, I signed on for a fairly heavy load. I was teaching a couple of sections of freshman composition, which is not usually what established writers want to teach, but I felt like that would get to know the freshmen. And it’d be interesting to see these guys coming right out of gaozhong right out of gaokao and what are they like?
And then I taught a class on journalism, nonfiction writing, and I sort of expanded the enrollment of that class so that I could take kids from all over the University. Which again, I had more than 30 students, you never want to do that in an intensive writing class. But I wanted to learn what it was like and so this was really what I was focused on. So that was the plan. I was going to teach for one or two years and then transition to a journalist.
Jeremy: So masochism. Midlife crisis, kind of —
Kaiser: It was about that cohort longitudinal study that he’s doing.
Peter: I wanted to visit my Fuling students at the same time. So that was the plan and then it changed. I mean, the first thing that happened actually was that the Peace Corps left very suddenly at the beginning of 2020. And that of course was based in Chengdu and I had such a history with the organization, I felt like I should write something about that. That was the first piece I did for the New Yorker and then the pandemic hit. And at that point I realized that I should probably do whatever writing I could do.
Kaiser: That piece wasn’t a reported piece really. I mean, it didn’t raise eyebrows. What ended up sort of attracting the attention? Because you went and you did reporting from Wuhan. You actually traveled around quite a bit. You went back to Fuling and you went to Wuhan and did some fantastic stories. It’s interesting though, the one that really seemed to get under the skin of a lot of Western observers, and I’m sure you were aware of the kerfuffle around it, was this story that I thought was fantastic about how China handled — there were a couple of them — about how China handled the COVID 19 pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about how the reaction was to that and how that made you feel?
Peter: Well, I did two stories early on about the… The first one was about what it was like to be under lockdown. And I did that very quickly because it was just starting to happen in the US. That came out like at the end of March and it was just when it was starting to hit here and I wrote about our family’s experiences in Chengdu. In kind of the early stage I wrote about what had happened in Wuhan. I hadn’t visited Wuhan, of course at that time you couldn’t go there, but I was in correspondence with a medical worker and I quoted from our correspondence. And I wrote also about the pressure on school children, which I could tell even at that early point, guy had two kids, but I could also, hearing from my Fuling students, that there were a lot of problems with remote education and I documented a suicide in Fuling in that story. There was a kid in Fuling who killed himself and there were quite a few of those. They were not being reported in the Chinese press. That story actually got some negative reaction in China.
Peter: So was a number of nationalists, sort of online folks, were unhappy about that. The next story though, was months later when I wrote about, “So how did they turn this around?” What was the strategy? What was China doing to control this? Because pretty soon you could tell that what they had done had really worked and that kind of angered the other side. Because I was supposedly praising China. But I mean, I don’t know how else you could look at this. And China is an amazing example that I think is still sort of underappreciated and this is sort of separate from whatever you feel about the Party or anything.
It’s the only large country that really handled the virus to the point of zero COVID. It’s also the only country that really screwed up badly early and then turned it totally around. Those are both really interesting things to me. I mean, I feel like you have to document that, right? And that doesn’t mean that I’m happy with what they’re doing in Xinjiang or any place else, but this was an important story. And at that time, when I wrote that story, really my sensitivity was, “I don’t want…” There is sometimes a tendency when you write about China to feel like you have to undercut everything. Everything has to have a certain amount of criticism. If —
Jeremy: That’s kind of what I want to ask exactly. What is your obligation to explain what’s going on in —
Peter: I’ve got a lot of-
Jeremy: Xinjiang In every piece. That —.
Kaiser: You don’t need to recite that litany.
Peter: That story though. I also have an obligation that my home country, where the people are reading this, has 100,000 deaths at that point. They’re doing everything wrong. They need to hear about what happens if you do it right. And I was concerned about that. I don’t want to engage in whataboutism, right? Which is like, “Okay, maybe this looks like they’re doing well, but what about this other thing that’s going on?” And I felt like Americans had become very complacent and they just didn’t understand what needed to be done. And so I was really concerned about that. And that wasn’t something that the people criticizing this, took into account. And of course the next story I did was about Wuhan, which was something that didn’t make the nationalists happy, right? So no matter what you did at this point, somebody’s going to be unhappy. But my obligation as a writer, I feel like, for the unique nature of China’s situation, the way they turned this around, it’s really important to document that. That’s my obligation.
Kaiser: Peter Hessler: What about your whataboutism?
Jeremy: So we’ve only got, I think, two minutes left and you kind of cunningly avoided answering my question about why you left Chengdu. Are you able to say anything?
Peter: No, I didn’t avoid. We just got…
Jeremy: Oh, it was us. We started. We too you –
Peter: Yeah. So I wanted to stay and I offered, I think, three different times, to continue my contract there. The reasons were never that clear. And even at one point, somebody said, “Well, we can’t do short-term contracts over a period of time.” And I said, “Well, I’m willing to do a long-term contract if that’s the problem and even teach more classes.” And that was also rejected. And so there was really no negotiation. I was never told if you do A, B, or C, then we’re interested. There was no interest at all. I had heard over the whole last year, periodically, that there was unhappiness at various parts of the University, with my writing. This was never communicated directly.
Peter: Nobody ever sat down and said, “We don’t want you to do this.” Or you shouldn’t write about this. That was never part of it. I just would hear things. And I knew. Anybody who’s been in China knows that this is potentially going to be a problem. As I said, it wasn’t my intention in going there to work as this kind of correspondent. The situation, I felt, demanded it. I thought this is a diplomatic crisis. All of our journalists have been kicked out, almost.
Peter: This is a global health crisis. If I can do something to cover this, I should do that. And if that involves a risk of expulsion, I was fine with that. That didn’t concern me, but it was not like the journalist expulsions. I’m almost certain of this. There was not any kind of top down command, get this guy out. When you have this kind of situation, like in China, the political climate, some things are black and white. They come from clear directives, but there’s a lot of gray area. And the gray area is often a general environment has been set and people lower down the chain make decisions to be safe and to try to preempt future problems. And that, I believe, was my situation.
Jeremy: Preemptive. What do you call it? Preemptive butt-covering. Something like that.
Kaiser: CYA. Right. I mean, I imagine it was a pretty local decision then. It came from the university administration?
Peter: Yeah. I can’t say too much more about that, but basically, yeah. I mean, I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody. It wasn’t a shock to us. It was a disappointment, but we knew this was the risk. And Leslie and I’d had long conversations about this, to the point where my daughters at one point were like, “When do we find out if daddy’s going to get kicked out?” Which is not what you want your 10-year-old talking about. And I think mostly because they wondered if we’d make it back for ski season in Colorado.
Kaiser: I mean, my kids ask about when’s daddy going to get kicked out of the house. Anyway, thanks so much. I mean, we are out of time. We normally do recommendations at the end of the show, but unfortunately we do not have time this time, but I want to thank Peter and I want to thank everybody else for showing up. And listen to our show next week. So thanks everyone and enjoy the rest of the conference. Jeremy, thank you.
Kaiser: Sinica Podcast is powered by The China Project and is a proud part of the Sinica network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at Sincia@thechinaproject.com and tell us how we’re doing or just as good, give us a rating and review on Apple podcasts. This really does help people to discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at The China Project News and make sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica network. Thank you very much for listening. We will see you next week. Take Care.