‘Translating for myself’: Ann Scott Tyson on seeing China from the inside (audio)

How do you learn the language of a place? Ann’s expansive vocabulary, not just of words but of patterns of behavior and habits of thought, has allowed her to share a nuanced narrative about one of the world’s most influential countries. 

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Christian Science Monitor correspondent Ann Scott Tyson during a huge pro-democracy march on Hong Kong Dec, 8, 2019.

‘Translating for myself’: Ann Scott Tyson

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Two words in particular come to mind when I think of Ann Scott Tyson: intrepid and intentional. I’ll start with the intrepid part.

Ann is one of those rare multifaceted journalists who reports with fearlessness and sensitivity. She can report alongside troops at war or sit down with Melinda Gates, as she did recently, and get her to open up about spirituality and her life journey. 

She can write stories that require remarkable courage and remarkable compassion – as she showed when she went to Xinjiang, China, last fall to report on the Uyghurs. She told me later that working there under close surveillance was one of the most challenging assignments of her career (and this is someone who was on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan).

That leads me to the intentional part. Everyone who knows Ann can attest to her incredible tenacity and deep attention to every detail. But she twins that with incredible graciousness. That powerful combination is what gets her to the right people, provokes revealing conversations, and gains the trust and interest of her subjects. Ann treats the facts, her subjects, and those around her with deep respect. 

That’s what makes me, like many others, really enjoy her coverage. Please take just a few minutes to listen in on our recent conversation, recorded from Hong Kong, on how Ann goes about bringing you these remarkable stories. (Then scroll down to read some of them.) 

Note: This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story below.


SAMANTHA LAINE PERFAS: In China, knowing Chinese isn’t just convenient for reporting, but almost a necessity. Ann Scott Tyson, the Monitor’s Beijing bureau chief, is able to not only gather where sources are from due to their regional accents, but also read propaganda posters and art. Listen as the Monitor’s managing editor Amelia Newcomb and Ann talk about her coverage of Hong Kong and China in 2019. 

AMELIA NEWCOMB: So and you joined the Monitor last year as our Beijing correspondent. But you actually started reporting on China more than 30 years ago, which was also for the Monitor. And I’ve wondered what has struck you most as you’ve reengaged with this major story?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: I would say mainly I’ve been struck by just the spread of China’s global reach, its ambition and its incredible assertiveness. One of my favorite professors described it as swagger. And I think that really fits how China’s feeling in the world today as it’s emerged as the second largest economy and it’s expected soon to surpass the United States. It’s made really huge accomplishments like lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And it also has a significant middle class now, which is a big difference from when I was there initially. And this tremendous growth means that it’s playing a very decisive, if not the decisive role, in trends that impact us all - from global warming to the race for artificial intelligence. But China under its current leader Xi Jinping, has shifted away from the reforms that were so important when I was there earlier toward tighter Communist Party controls. Its authoritarianism and its efforts at censorship are also increasingly felt overseas, including in the United States.

AMELIA: So pulling all those factors together for reports that readers can really wrap their heads around is a real challenge. And one thing our readers should know about you is that you speak fluent Chinese. And of course, that’s a huge help, I imagine, from a practical point of view. But I would think it also helps you better understand social dynamics and ways of thinking about things, right?

ANN: Yeah, absolutely. And beyond just being able to communicate readily with people, I like to pick up on things like people’s regional accents and, with that and other clues, it helps me figure out how to approach them. Are they urban or rural? You know, I can tell a lot from their dialect. And China is primarily Han Chinese ethnically, but it’s very, very diverse with lot of stark geographical and cultural distinctions and many, many ethnic groups. So knowing Chinese helps me relate to people. It helps me read things like propaganda messaging on posters that, you know, things they’re conveying to the general public that they might not want to convey to a foreign reporter. I can listen to the state run news media and see what again, what they’re trying to convey to their population. And sometimes they’ve even compared the English translations of official media reports with the Chinese and I found the Chinese to be a lot more powerful and colorful. So I’ll opt for translating it myself instead of relying on the official translations here in Hong Kong. I can read the protest slogans in in Chinese, the artwork in the graffiti that’s everywhere around the city with all these major protests going on. And again, sometimes the English translations are just not as good. For example, one of the biggest protest chants that you hear in pretty much every march is usually translated as “Liberate Hong Kong.” But in Chinese, it’s a lot richer and it means something closer to “Recovering Hong Kong’s Territory” or its honor and glory and just has sort of a deeper significance in the Chinese.

AMELIA: Now, as you mentioned, you’re in Hong Kong as we’re having this conversation. And that obviously has been a big story on your beat this year. I’ve been so struck by your ability to share with us both the humanity behind the protests and also the larger forces driving them. How do you go about your reporting amid such intense news developments every day?

ANN: Well, overall, as a reporter, I really gravitate and through thrive on just being on the ground. So whether I’m in a protest march or I’m off in some little dim sum restaurant surrounded by old guys reading their newspapers, or like the other night, I was in a crowded vote counting station where I was watching these local election returns come in in Hong Kong. And I was there until about 3 a.m. in the morning. And as more election returns would come in, the crowd was getting more and more excited. And the election resulted in a real landslide win for the pro-democracy candidates, which was a sort of a vindication for the protesters. But being there has always been really important to me. I find increasingly these days that perhaps younger reporters rely more on social media and online reporting, which is very valuable. But nothing replaces actually being there to get the real genuine picture, I find. And Thanksgiving this year was actually really special because I was in Hong Kong and just sort of expected it would be like any other day, another day of political reporting. And then that morning, Hong Kong time, President Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which people here had been... I would interview someone, they would say, well, “Please tell everyone to get this act passed.” And, you know, there was a lot of advocacy for it among not only activists, but just ordinary people. So many people were very happy and excited about this. And later that night, tens of thousands gathered in this huge rally on Hong Kong Island, right on Victoria Harbor. And many of them were holding up their cell phone lights and waving American flags. And it was a really a big celebration, and it was fun, too, to be there at that time. So I just really enjoy witnessing events firsthand, and particularly when I can observe them without interrupting too much or just blending in in a way that makes people not even notice I’m there.

AMELIA: So we’re closing in on the end of 2019 and about to start a new year. Do you have any thoughts about what we should all be watching for in 2020?

ANN: Well, I can tell you a couple of things that I will be watching for as a reporter. In January, Taiwan will hold a presidential election and the incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party - and that’s the party that’s more associated with the distinctive Taiwan identity - she’s facing a challenge from a politician with the Kuomintang Party, and that is the one that’s favored eventual reunification with mainland China. And in part, thanks to the protest movement in Hong Kong, President Tsai, who was not doing that well earlier, is now more likely to win this election. But that will be one interesting thing to watch. As for Hong Kong, it will hold Legislative Council elections in September of next year. And those will be another important indicator of whether the pro-democracy movement can make further gains in Hong Kong’s lawmaking body or whether the more pro-Beijing candidates that have traditionally dominated the legislature will remain strong or even make gains. And then in China, of course, as I mentioned earlier, the government set this goal of completing the work of lifting the entire population above the official poverty line by 2020. So it’d be really, an extraordinary accomplishment if that does happen, not only for China, but for the world. 

SAMANTHA: Thanks for listening. To see more of Ann’s coverage, you can visit csmonitor.com. This story was produced by me, Samantha Laine Perfas with sound design by Noel Flatt. Copyright The Christian Science Monitor, 2019.

Related links:

China’s great pork shortage: Why it could cost Beijing

We loved this story because it was about a whole lot more than putting food on the table. Turns out, in China, ample supplies of pork are a key gauge for everything from happy weddings to happy homes to symbols of the good life and accomplishment. 

Behind Hong Kong’s resolve: Locals’ view of a city under siege   

The more Chinese mainlanders have moved to Hong Kong, the more Hong Kongers are embracing their own distinct local identity. Understanding that response gives important insight on why these protests aren’t slowing.

‘There are no people’: China’s crackdown in the Uyghur heartland

Traveling under very difficult circumstances to a village in Xinjiang, China, Ann witnessed firsthand the heavy costs of China’s forced political “reeducation” of Uyghurs. This story allowed all of us to connect with the families struggling to deal with Beijing’s highly invasive and harsh crackdown.

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