The Short Version
Paul Mooney is an American freelance journalist who has reported on Burma, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong since 1985. He has been on staff at Reuters, Newsweek, the Far Eastern Economic Review, Eastern Express, the South China Morning Post, and Knight-Ridder Financial News. His articles have appeared in leading publications and web sites around the world. Paul, the recipient of a 11 journalist awards for his reporting on China, was based in Beijing from 1994-2012. In 2013, the Chinese government refused to re-new his journalist visa, ending his 18 consecutive years as a journalist in China. Paul has been roving around Burma, Thailand and Vietnam since 2014.
The Long Version
I first became interested in journalism as a teenager serving in the US Army in Vietnam in 1968. I’d gone to Vietnam feeling quite gung ho about the war, so much so that I dropped out of high school to enlist, afraid the war would end before I got there. But my support for the war began to fade soon after I arrived when I realized how the fighting was being waged and its effect on the Vietnamese people.
My unit, the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, had a small trailer library in the base camp, with hundreds of books on a wide variety of topics. Noteworthy, and surprising, was its collection of books on Vietnam’s history and the war. I began to read my way through the library on Vietnam and found that these journalistic accounts provided a more accurate picture of the situation in Vietnam than I’d gotten from my during my military training. The first book I read was David Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire, a scathing look at the failure of American policy in Vietnam based on Halberstam’s own experiences in reporting the war. Halberstam’s description struck a chord with me as many of the things he pointed to for the American quagmire in Vietnam were things that I was seeing on the ground in Vietnam myself. The Making of a Quagmire and other similar books had a huge impact on me.
I also read the works of Bernard Fall, a French scholar cum commentator who did his primary research more like a journalist, trekking through the jungles of Vietnam with US Marine infantry platoons. Fall’s military classic Street Without Joy, a portrayal of the French failure in Vietnam, had obvious parallels for American military analysts. Ironically, Fall was killed the year before I arrived in Vietnam along Highway 1, which the French troops had earlier dubbed la rue sans joie, hence the name of his earlier book.
I made a list of books in the library that I wanted to read and I asked friends going back to the rear base camp to bring them back out to my fire support base, where I read them by candlelight at night in my small bunker. I was so obsessed with the poor strategy used by the United States that after I completed my first tour, I volunteered for a second one, anxious to serve as a military advisor to a Vietnamese unit, in the naive hope of a 19-year-old that one young man could somehow have an impact over US policy.
By the time I left Vietnam two years later, I’d read dozens of books on Vietnam’s history and the war and I had also taught myself Vietnamese, using my time as an occasional advisor to Vietnamese army units to hone my language skills and to gain a new perspective on the country.
I returned to the Bronx in September 1970 with an intense interest in Asian history and politics and a desire to be a journalist. I received my general equivalency diploma while in the Army and within a week of leaving Vietnam, I enrolled in Fordham University under a special program for Vietnam veterans. I later transferred to Manhattanville College because they had an Asian studies program and Chinese classes there. I received my B.A. Degree in East Asian Studies from Manhattanville College in 1974. After graduation, I went to Taiwan to continue my studies in Chinese.
I returned to the US in 1978 keen to find work in journalism, but I had no experience and couldn't find an opportunity. Two years later, however, with the help of Peter Murray, a childhood friend who always looked out for me, I found a part-time job at Newsweek magazine in New York working as a photo filer. Over the next five years I slowly worked my way up the ladder, moving on to photo researcher, news clipper, editorial researcher and occasional reporter.
With the support of Newsweek, which provided me with a partial tuition reimbursement program and a flexible work schedule, I returned to school in 1982 and obtained a Master’s Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and a Certificate in East Asian Studies from the university’s East Asian Institute. Upon graduation in 1985, I moved my family to Taiwan to begin my career as a freelance journalist, starting off as the stringer for Newsweek in Taiwan. During the next five years on the island I wrote for Newsweek, Asiaweek, the Washington Post, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, International Herald Tribune, Far Eastern Economic Review, the Hong Kong Standard and other international publications.
My reporting initially focused on politics, primarily the struggle between the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the fledgling opposition movement known as the dangwai, or outside the party, a reference to the fact that Taiwan was ruled by one party. I was fascinated by the courage and determination of the opposition in the face of the iron-fisted rule of the KMT, which used harsh measures to keep it’s opponents from gaining strength. Many of the senior opposition leaders were in prison while others were under constant surveillance by the notorious Taiwan Garrison Command. Some were hurt, and a few were even killed, under mysterious circumstances. Being a part of the opposition movement was not without serious risks.
I soon learned the KMT’s autocratic rule affected many other areas of society and I was drawn to write about social issues in Taiwan. I wrote about child prostitution among aborigine girls, some of whom were only 11 or 12 years old, the suppression of Christian groups, the struggle of activist groups to push back the destruction of the environment, and the plight of elderly Nationalist soldiers who had fought for the KMT on the mainland, only to be abandoned in poverty in Taiwan.
My focus on these issues in Taiwan and China has a lot to do with my background. I grew up in a working class neighborhood of the Bronx, the youngest of five children, and the fifth to quit high school and the fourth to enlist in the military. My father was a building janitor and I spent my first 17 years living in basement apartments in different parts of the Bronx. My mother cleaned offices during the day and sometimes worked as a waitress in the evenings. In the mid-1960s, buildings around us were abandoned and the neighborhood entered a steep decline. Drug addiction spread through the area resulting in a dramatic and dangerous increase in crime. Around this time, some neighbors were murdered during muggings, several of my friends went to jail, and at least two died from drug overdoses.
Although I was a voracious reader, I didn’t like school. I played hooky 60-90 days each year of junior high school, ending up in the worst classes in some of the worst schools in New York City. I barely showed up for my first year of high school, just waiting to turn 16, when I could legally leave school and find a job. After doing odd jobs for a year, I enlisted in the Army after turning 17.
These early experiences gave me a keen sense of sympathy for the underdog that has influenced the types of stories that I do.
A turning point in my career came in late May 1989 when Asiaweek magazine asked me to go to Beijing to help cover the rapidly expanding student protests around China. This was the biggest story I’d ever covered and it had a huge impact on me. I spent about 18 hours a day mingling with student protesters in Tiananmen Square, getting to know many of the leaders. I was there in the early morning hours when the first People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops made their unsuccessful march to the square on June 3, turned away by citizens keen to protect the student protesters. I was back out on the streets that afternoon when the first soldiers emerged from their underground hiding places and the first clashes occurred. In the evening armed PLA units and tanks entered the city and opened fire on innocent civilians and I watched with horror as people fell around me. The wounded (some obviously dead already) were rushed to nearby hospitals propped up on bicycles, carried between two friends, or on public buses commandeered by Chinese citizens. I’ll never forget how brave these people were nor the plea that I heard over and over again that night from outraged Chinese: “Please tell the world the truth about what’s happening here.”
Over the next few days I barely slept, working almost around the clock to accommodate news organizations around the world with their rolling deadlines. The day after June 4, I snuck around the tightly controlled universities as students hurriedly packed their belongings to escape just before security police searching for student leaders raided the campuses. For a week or so after the bloody crackdown, I received the odd phone call from time to time from students, teachers, dissidents and workers I had met earlier, all on the run from place to place, their voices full of fear. The phone calls suddenly came to a stop. I can't remember their names, but their faces are still clear in my mind and I often wonder what happened to them.
I left Beijing at the end of June determined to return to China to work as a journalist. Exactly one year later, my wife, two daughters and I moved to Hong Kong, where I began to make monthly reporting forays into provinces all over China. During this period, I worked for Japan’s Kyodo News Service and later the Far Eastern Economic Review.
In 1994 I moved to Beijing to open a bureau for Knight-RIdder Financial News, reporting on financial and economic news. In 1997, I returned to freelancing. In the years since, I’ve written about frightened North Korean teenage refugees hiding out in Beijing, the plight of street kids in Beijing, the fate of young farm girls who’ve turned to prostitution to improve their lives, young rural boys kidnapped and forced to work as slaves in illegal brick kilns, known as Black Kilns, the plight of children with AIDS, the abuse and torture of rights lawyers and activists, the sad lives of the handicapped, threats people face from exposure to asbestos and heavy metals, two hidden killers, and brutal government abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang. I’ve also written about the progress China has made during this period, the new faces of China’s top cities, growing personal wealth, improved living standards and grudgingly slow improvements of basic political rights, such as freedom of expression.
In 2013, the Chinese government declined my application for a journalist visa to work for Reuters in Beijing. No reason was given, but it is clear this was related to my almost two decades of reporting on sensitive politics and human rights issues in China. In March 2014, I returned to Asia to take up a posting as Reuters bureau chief in Rangoon, Burma. A year later I resigned from that position so that I could have more freedom to report things that interested me and to be able to cover a wider area of Southeast Asia.
My 31 years reporting from Asia have been a bittersweet experience. I worked most of these years on my own as a freelance journalist in areas where the craft of journalism can be very trying, especially without institutional support. Focusingfor so many years on China’s down and out often had a deep impact on me. One can’t cover such issues year in and out without feeling immense sadness. I owe a great debt of gratitude to my wife and daughters, who suffered as a result of my passion for journalism, but who always supported me.
At the same time, being a freelancer has given me the freedom to report on a wide variety of issues and to travel throughout China and Asia. I’ve been fortunate to meet and write about incredibly courageous people and to witness first hand the great changes that have taken place in Asia during the past three decades. I wouldn’t change a single thing.