Interview With Joanna Chiu Of NüVoices

[Image description: photograph of the Beijing skyline at sunrise. The foreground is shadowy, and filled with trees and smaller traditional buildings. The background is bright, with skyscrapers and plumes of smoke.]  faungg's photos / Creative Commons

[Image description: photograph of the Beijing skyline at sunrise. The foreground is shadowy, and filled with trees and smaller traditional buildings. The background is bright, with skyscrapers and plumes of smoke.]

faungg's photos / Creative Commons

Where did the idea of NüVoices originate and how did it develop from that point?

We started almost two years ago, crowd-sourcing a directory of female experts on greater China. It was really popular and people were using it all around the world - even to this day, every time I check the list, there’s always someone checking the directory. I think that it kind of sparked a lot of discussion about [the fact that] there are so many women researchers, writers, artists, and journalists working on China. So how come when there’s an event, the people writing books are mostly of a narrow demographic: middle-aged, older, white men? There’s not much representation of voices directly from China, either. There was a book in the UK that was crowd founded called The Good Immigrant - it was a collection of essays from immigrants in England, and it became a best-seller. So it really showed that there was a market for writing by people who were always being questioned about their expertise. That is what we want to do with NüVoices. Late last year I got a board together. We’re almost like a NGO unofficially, like a network in all these cities; we started launching in Hong Kong, Taiwan and now we’re working on developing a presence in New York. So we’re doing more than working on a book project, we’re a community where we publish original content and promote women’s work on our website as well.


Now that you mention community: NüVoices is an inclusive organization. How do you make sure everybody is included?

Our model is that there’s a wide variety of community groups that focus on a certain industry. We promote women [she explicitly includes trans women], but that’s really broad; we also include people who might not really identify with a certain gender. Even though our published book will be all contributions from women, all genders are welcome. I think we’re unique in that way, because we are a feminist organization, but we also really support, encourage and welcome men to get involved. And if they want to help, they usually get a specific task they can do. So we have guys helping with developing the website, or volunteering as editors, so it’s really “all hands on deck” and everyone who wants can get involved. And we are a collective, so it’s not like the leadership dictates what’s going on - we provide a platform for people to plan and organize their own activities and write what they want to write.


How can Asia coverage benefit from diverse voices, i.e. from diversifying the voices which report on Asia, which you are effectively trying to do with NüVoices?

It’s not that we don’t want to work with older, white men - they have experience. It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone has bias and we have our own backgrounds and we bring it to our work. What people write in a story is going to be different because of your background, your networks, so the more diversity we have, usually the wider variety of stories we can get. For example, at a conference in Hong Kong that just happened there was an older male Asian editor for AP. He said that he wasn’t noticing #metoo happening even though it was raging for weeks, just because he wasn’t tuned to it. It had to be a younger female colleague who told him what was happening, that they should cover it. So it’s different perspectives – of gender or age, or religion, or race. When you have different perspectives, you are going to be looking out for different things, you are going to have different networks, different strengths. Readers don’t want to read the same perspective all the time. And also, I find that there’s more and more young, female, Chinese correspondents [in China] and often they have much easier access to places. I think if you’re like a big, stocky white guy, you really stick out. Asian women blend in more.


Journalism is a very hierarchical field. We of course all come from different backgrounds, but do you think that maybe this act of diversifying voices can change the “little boys’ club” that is the field of journalism, and can it reduce the influence of machismo when reporting (in general and in and about Asia)?

I think places are slowly adapting. I hear male journalists say they get feedback from readers and listeners who are kind of sick of the casually sexist attitude and jokes. So gradually, it’s not mainstream anymore, it’s not accepted. So places have the motivation to change, because the expectations of their readership are changing. Like the #metoo movement. People have higher standards if there is any discrimination being portrayed in media. Even in [media] that are hierarchical and kind of traditional there is quite an openness to change. It is difficult because it’s slow - even if an organization is supportive, they can’t really control every single person working for them. There are some people who could still be really kind of awkward, maybe even consciously - like a boys’ club. If you’re an older man, maybe if you see a younger man, you might see yourself in them and you can mentor that man over a young woman. They might not even be aware of that, so having this conversation, I think it can help people who might not realize their prejudice and change something.


What does the “corrosive culture of expatriates”, as you call it in your articles, do to Asia coverage? As you rightly pointed out, expat culture leads to less accountability – to the place you are covering, but also your sources and your colleagues. There are still a number of journalists who don't believe they need to speak the local language to report well on the place where they are, or who just feel that they can come somewhere for a couple of days, “report the hell out of it” and then leave. I feel that this lack of accountability is extremely important.

I just saw a report by the University of British Columbia’s Global Reporting Centre where it said that people who are on the ground, locals who speak the language often get paid the least and they do the most dangerous work. This happens in China, as it does in all over the world. In China the language is a factor, where all over the world people who tend to have the language skills, who take English as a major for example, tend to be women. So it leads to a gendered dynamic, where it may be an office with lots of white men and then mostly young women, Chinese probably.

People who study English, they are all women, so it ends up [being] a lot of young women, Chinese journalists, in subordinate roles to these male correspondents.

So this is the overall structure – and, on top of that, [I’ve heard of many cases] of these men also sexually harassing women. They feel they can get away with it; [they are] far from home, laws might not be as strict as they are at home. So this happens as it happens everywhere, but in Asia the local people tend to be paid a lot less, and there is no job security. And it happens more often in these places where there is a pay gap between people, but it also happens far away from headquarters, where people might not have access to human resources - headquarters might not even know some of these employees exist, because some people get hired on a contract basis. It really depends on people behaving well, and if they don’t behave well, then it is really difficult.

It’s also about people who work together taking responsibility; you hold other people responsible, accountable, so that if something happens you have to react.

Exactly. Often when people go overseas, they don’t get trained. It’s not really a point that’s being emphasized. It was wasn’t surprising to me to hear so many stories [like this]. Some of these women, like news assistants I talked to, also complained that the topics that white male correspondents write about can be quite stereotypical and often they don’t really interview many women. Actually, sometimes they don’t interview a lot of Chinese people - they often just quote foreign experts, rather than Chinese experts.


I mean it’s good of course that women are speaking up, but it’s actually scary how many women have experienced some type of sexual harassment.

Yeah, there’s a global study that forty-eight percent of women journalists, all around the world, have experienced [harassment]. That’s globally. From country to country it’s really difficult [to say]. In Japan, they did a survey of Japanese journalists and they found over 150 [recent] allegations of sexual harassment. This gives you a sense of what’s happening in Japan. In China they haven’t done a survey. My friend Sophia Huang, a Chinese journalist, did do a survey of more than a hundred Chinese female journalists and over 80 percent had experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault.


This takes me to another interesting topic you also mention in your articles: the power dynamics in newsrooms, where local journalists are reduced to the role of the “assistants”, who help more seasoned journalists and don't get credit for their work. What are your thoughts on this and what are possible solutions to this problem?

Chinese laws state that Chinese journalists can’t work in a full status as foreign media correspondents, but it doesn’t say anything about giving them some credit, so actually it’s usually better practice, and promotes better morale, if the story is not too sensitive, to give the news assistants a choice whether to have a byline or not. Or, if not a full byline, at the end you can add “with the research from so and so”. I think, slowly, more publications are starting to do that, and it actually makes a big difference. Another big issue for [the news assistants] is the salary. Sometimes when a correspondent first comes to China [they] might actually be pretty young and it might be their first job in China, but even at entry-level foreign journalists can make many times more money than Chinese journalists – no matter how many years’ experience they have. Usually [Chinese journalists’] salary is set at a very low level and the budget for the Chinese staff is grouped in with miscellaneous office expenses, so they are not even covered by the employee budget. They are not seen as full employees. For them, sexual harassment is not as big a priority as making enough money to survive. If they know that a story might be stereotypical or that it might have some inaccuracies, sometimes they don’t feel empowered to speak up because everything is structured so they are second-class employees and they don’t feel like they can contribute. 

The interview was conducted over the phone and edited for clarity.

Matea Grgurinovic is a Beijing-based Croatian journalist writing mostly about social issues.