ChinaEconTalk: Peter Hessler talks China, Egypt, and the craft of foreign correspondence

In the latest ChinaEconTalk, we have veteran journalist Peter Hessler, who spent seven years in China as a correspondent for The New Yorker, followed by five years in Egypt. He’s witnessed immense change during his long and prolific career reporting on the society, politics, and culture of these two dynamic nations, which he tells us about.

He also considers the similarities and differences in the ways the Chinese and Egyptian people make sense of their respective places in the world, based on their rich historical and cultural legacies:

The sheer size of China — and the fact that development at first took place mostly in the south — meant that when people left to work, they would go provinces away, and they could only go home once a year. The break was really total in many cases.

Egypt is a very different country, physically. It’s all laid out along the river, it’s not that big. More than two-thirds of the population lives within a three-hour drive of Cairo. Cairo is a dominant city in a way Beijing is not. It’s very easy to go back and forth, so you don’t break connections to your village so easily. You could see the impact of it — it was easier to control the young women, for instance; they weren’t allowed to live in dormitories.

In addition, Hessler reflects on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and contrasts it with the 2013 mass protests and eventual coup d’état in Cairo:

In 2014, the anniversary of the original uprising on January 25th, every year there was some kind of demonstration or meeting and in that year the government put it down very violently. I was out in a square, not Tahrir because you couldn’t even go to Tahrir at that point. The police just started shooting indiscriminately after about five minutes of totally peaceful demonstration by not a large crowd of people. There was no warning given, there was no “clear the square you have five minutes,” there weren’t even clear warning shots. Something like 60 people died in Cairo that day.

After fleeing I took shelter in some guy’s garden until the police had finished rounding everybody up. They were very frustrated as to why this kept happening. When I told them I lived in China, I explained that they’d usually give people a warning. In Tiannamen they did not. One of the tragedies of Tiananmen was the awful police work. If you are going to declare martial law you should negotiate with people, give them a chance to leave, provide safe exits, and in many places they didn’t do that. But afterwards the Chinese did handle these things very differently. They did train police in crowd control. This is not something to give them a ton of credit for, there was a terrible crackdown, but in Egypt you saw how much worse it can be if they keep doing this.

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