This week, we want to make sure Susan Jakes is on your radar. 

She’s the editor of ChinaFile and Senior Fellow at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. She’s lived and worked in China, for Time magazine, first as a reporter and editor based in Hong Kong and then as the magazine’s Beijing Correspondent.

Jakes is fluent in Mandarin and holds a B.A. and M.A. from Yale in history. Her doctoral studies at Yale, which she suspended to join Asia Society, focused on modern Chinese history and global history of ecology.

FPI: What is ChinaFile?

It’s a one-year-old online magazine about China. We commission a wide range of types of reporting from both Chinese and non-Chinese journalists, scholars, photographers and filmmakers. Our stories run on our own site and we also publish them in larger outlets including Foreign Policy. We also create archives of the best China coverage from other publications, among them The New York Review of Books. We want it to be easier and more convenient for English speakers—Americans in particular—to develop more widely informed, nuanced views of China. That’s the main goal, at least.

The idea came out of conversations I had in the summer of 2010 with Orville Schell, who directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations and who has been writing about China for many decades.

I’d just finished my qualifying exams for my Ph.D. at Yale, when an email arrived with the subject heading “Schell calling” and said something like, “I’m kicking around an idea. Wanna come down to New York and chat it about it?” There’s really only one plausible answer to that kind of invitation when Orville’s the one asking, so I got on the train.

We talked about the number of U.S. publications closing their bureaus in China. We talked about the number of relatively unknown, institutional fragile and yet dependably high quality blogs on China and Orville’s (correct) assessment that few of them would survive more than a couple of years. We thought we could try to take advantage of Asia Society’s long history and institutional solidity to build a publication that could both fill some of the gaps in mainstream news coverage of China and also support and kind of federate some of the existing smaller sites. So I took what was supposed to be one-year leave from my Ph.D. program to get the thing started. And I’m still at it.

FPI: What sparked your interest in China?

During my first or second year of high school, Li Lu, one of the students leaders of the Tiananmen protests of 1989, who had just made it out of China spoke at my high school in New York and deeply impressed me. But I didn’t really have any interest in China growing up. It was in college, at Yale, that my roommate kind of dragged me to a lecture by the great historian, Jonathan Spence. (She referred to him, as everyone else did, only by his last name. I’m embarrassed to say, I’d never heard of him.) The lecture was about 10 things Spence found fascinating about China. It was 50 minutes. And it completely changed the course of my life. Spence became my advisor and mentor.

I studied Chinese at Middlebury for a couple of summers and then spent my first year after Yale studying Chinese in China, in Beijing and in Harbin, in the far northeast of the country.

While I was there, the Chinese government released the Chinese dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who’d been in prison for 19 years, and sent him to the U.S. on “medical parole” ahead of President Clinton’s trip to China the following year. When I got back to the U.S. I spent a year as his personal assistant and interpreter. I ran around the world with him as he lobbied for greater international pressure on China to improve human rights.  It was an incredible education, but it also—paradoxically maybe—made me want to get back to China. Wei had written some essays for TIME’s Asia edition, which I’d translated. I was in no sense a journalist, but the editors took a gamble and hired me as a reporter in their Hong Kong headquarters. Pretty soon I was back in China pretty regularly reporting. And in 2002 I moved up to Beijing full time.

FPI: When you went back as a reporter, what stories resonated with you?

Even in 2000 the pace of change in China was amazing. That made it a great place to be a reporter.

One story that stands out to me, looking back, came toward the end of my time there. TIME was doing a special issue based on the travels of Marco Polo and sending reporters to the cities Polo claimed to have visited. I went to Hangzhou—south of Shanghai. In Polo’s time, and for several centuries it had been the world’s capital of silk production, so I went there to talk to an executive at one of the country’s largest silk producers.

I’d thought I was going to write a business piece about China’s dominance textile production. But it wound up being a story about national identity and personal history and how difficult it still is to retrieve them. The factory owner was obsessed with trying to beat Italy. He galled him that although China once again, now made the most silk of any country in the world, Italy still made the best silk and China couldn’t match the quality. He had Italians—Venetians no less, a great twist for a story about Marco Polo—in the factory trying to help him advance his mission. And he talked a lot about China’s lost glory. It was only after I’d talked to him for hours that it emerged out that he was a fourth generation silk maker. His grandfather had owned brocade factories before the revolution. His family had lost everything. And he’d gotten his start, in the worst job in the factory—reserved for children of counterrevolutionaries. But whatever he was recovering of his family’s past was an afterthought. He was focused on China’s reputation, China’s lost glory.

FPI: Censorship in China must make it a difficult place to work – what was your experience?

Thankfully, at the least during the years I was there, censorship was not a problem that affected U.S. journalists directly. That is, I was never censored. But we did worry about Chinese sources and the repercussions they faced for talking to us about certain kinds of subjects. It was nearly impossible to interview government officials.

In 2003 I had been doing a bunch of reporting on AIDS in China. SARS, this new scary virus was spreading in Southern China and we were beginning to hear rumors it was spreading in Beijing too. As those rumors grew, China’s premier Wen Jiabao publically denied them. Around that time I was asked to get in touch with some infectious disease specialists for a story a colleague was writing on SARS from the south. In the course of reporting I called a friend to ask if he knew of doctors I could talk to. He told me he’d just been about to call me and asked me to call him back on a “safe” phone – one not being tapped. It led me to a semi-retired medical school professor and surgeon who was also a military general. He had written a letter reporting dozens of SARS cases in Beijing and claiming—in direct contradiction to what Wen Jiabao had just said on national television—that the disease was spreading in Beijing—doctors and nurses were getting infected. I managed to  confirm this from a separate source.

I tried to talk to the SARS whistle blower into not putting his name in the piece.

I often found myself trying to warn people against using their names and identifying themselves. But in that case, he warned me. He said if his name wasn’t in the story it would be taken as yet another rumor. He was well known in China—and he knew anything he said would carry weight. He was 72. He told me he’d lived in China a long time and—he said this kindly but—essentially, who the heck was I to tell him to censor himself.

Once the story was out the World Health Organization (WHO) began to inspect hospitals. And the next week we learned that prior to WHO inspectors’ arrival, SARS patients at three major Beijing hospitals were taken from their beds and hidden. Some were driven around Beijing in ambulances; some were hidden in a basement.

FPI: What part of the China story are we missing?

One of the reasons we started ChinaFile, was that we felt some subjects don’t get the attention they deserve. For a whole variety of reasons, most stories on China tend to be about the economy or high politics than anything else. Most reporting is focused in the cities. It’s easy to get the mistaken impression that China is monolithic, that we can legitimately speak about “the Chinese” “what the Chinese want” etc. The Chinese government encourages this kind of view. But there is a whole world of lives outside of and even deep within the big narrative and there are subtler, important changes happening in Chinese society than can get eclipsed. It’s impossible to get a full picture. But I think we can still get a modestly fuller one.

FPI: We know a lot about China, but what about the Chinese?

In 2004, I followed a 17-year old girl from her village in one of the poorest areas in southern China to Shenzhen, a major manufacturing center. She eventually found work there as a waitress. And she’s had dozens of jobs since. It was an amazing thing to watch her transition. I’ve kept in touch with her for the past decade. A few months ago she sent me an email about how she was trying to figure out how to lead a meaningful life. In the space of 10 years, she’s gone from a job that was going to earn her less than 50 dollars a month to thinking about the world and what kind of life is worth living. Unlike the silk factory owner, who’s her father’s age, she’s thinking about her individual aspirations. I’ve never heard her talk about “China.”

Part of the difference is generational. But I also sense it’s related to larger changes in Chinese society. A lot of people I know with different backgrounds seem to be thinking this way. It wasn’t something I noticed when I lived there six years ago, when practical material concerns—earning a living, getting a car, getting an apartment—were what drove people. Now other concerns, the environment, identity, the quality of education seem to be much more important to greater and greater numbers of people. Not just elites. There’s a whole new level of collective and individual self-awareness and it will be interesting and important to watch its effects.