Monday, 22 July 2013

Remembering a Dear Friend

Diao Ying in June 2010
I just found out this afternoon that one of my friends in Beijing committed suicide -- over a month ago.

A mutual friend in the Chinese capital recently found out herself and made it her duty to tell me the sad news in a soundless online chat.

We sat in front of our computer screens communicating in shock and sadness.

Diao Ying was barely 30 years old and yet she was full of promise.

I met her a few months after I arrived in Beijing to work at China Daily in 2007. She contacted me by text and we met for lunch and I was immediately taken by this bright articulate young reporter who was already making waves in the business department.

We kept in touch, almost on a daily basis, complaining about the drudgery of our work, or how bureaucratic China was. And she would illuminate some interesting aspects of her motherland that would keep me further intrigued.

Meanwhile she longed to get out and see the world and I promised myself that I would help her in any way I could to facilitate this.

She later told me she was from Mongolia and because she was from an ethnic minority (a language she couldn't speak), her parents could have more than one child, and Ying has a younger sister.

Ying was academically inclined, that she passed her gaokao, or university entrance examinations and got into Renmin University in Beijing and studied English literature.

To sum up Ying, here is the draft of her unedited personal statement she wrote as part of her application to Stanford University's graduate program in journalism in December 2008:

Some say if one did not get enough of a food as a kid, he would love it as an adult. I guess that explains when I am so addicted to news.
I grew up in a small town in Inner Mongolia. There was no newsstand in the town. We have a 14-inch Sanyon TV at home, but there was only one channel, CCTV 1. Each night, around 7 pm, my family would watch the most popular news program over dinner as most Chinese do. It is popular not because it is interesting to watch, but because the program is the mouthpiece of the Party, and people watch to learn where the country is going. But as a kid, I only remember state leaders meet foreigner leaders everyday, shaking hands.
Eight years ago, I left that small town, came to Beijing. The country has changed a lot during the past years, but the program has changed little. The anchors are still the same, with the same hairstyle, the same serious, flat tone, and state leaders still shake hands at exactly 7 o'clock in the evening.    
My parents, who live in the town, still watch it every evening --- they have got used to it. But I have travelled around, worked in foreign media and State-owned newspaper. I've got to see China by myself.   
My first job after graduation was in a fashion magazine. I was an English literature student, looking for a job in news. The door to newsroom was closed but to fashion was open. I accepted the job as bilingual fashion editor, because it is similar with work of journalism. But I soon found that I love to wear beautiful clothes, but not to write about them. I am enchanted by the unusual stories happened to common people in daily life, not the frivolous life of super model.
Fortunately, I met someone in that company who has a much longer influence on me than the job itself. He is Leslie Charlton, a British reporter. By the time we met, he was over 70 years old, and has been in the business for half a century. Having worked as a correspondent on the Fleet Street in his twenties, then in eastern Europe, western Africa, and finally freelancing in Beijing, he refers to journalism as a "crazy business" but never left. He was my polisher, and we soon became good friends. I think he saw in me the young version of himself, who has the ambition of being the best journalist in the world, but lacks the experience, skill, and sometimes, makes silly mistakes. I simply wanted to live his life.
Thanks to Les, I sticked to news and found my second job one year later. It was with Mr Peter Goff, a correspondent for Sunday Telegraph in China. At that time he wrote features for the Telegraph and a media column for South China Morning Post about the development of media industry in mainland China. My job was to look for story ideas, find sources, and arrange interviews. 
So from a fashion editor, I turned to a news researcher, still, not a real reporter. When working on the media column, I interviewed the best reporters, editors, and the most successful media organizations in China. But unfortunately, the policy on media suddenly tightened in the winter of 2005. We talked with Li Datong, chief editor for Freezing Point, China's most famous feature column. Two weeks later, it got closed by the Propaganda Department. We met Chen Feng, who did the story about a college student in Guangzhou was beaten to death by the police. He is the pride of Chinese journalist because his work changed China's law making process. But his boss got into prison because local officials were angry about what he wrote.
I felt grateful to meet these people and was looking for inspiration from them as a novice in the industry. But Li, whose daughter was the same age as me, said he would never allow his daughter to work as a reporter. And Chen kindly suggested me not to work as a reporter in China if I could find another job.  These experiences taught me how the media in China works, and how some brave and talented Chinese reporters managed to keep faith and tell truth despite all kinds of hurdles. I thought I see in them myself in the future: exhausted and frustrated after a day's work, but the next morning, when I pick up your favorite pen and the yellow notebook,feel young and full of energy again because this is such an interesting country, with so many weired things happening every day.
Apart from the inspiration that I got from the reporters, I also started to practice as a reporter and learn to view China from the perspective of western reader. Working for a foreign media in China means danger itself. Shi Tao, the assistant for New York Times, got into jail for three years for releasing "state secret". But the more difficult part is that Chinese people still think western media are bad and biased, and they do not want to talk with us. Peter wanted to do a story about prison TV when I first started to work with him. I sent a fax during the first month, and I was still sending fax one week before I quit that job. They never replied, but I kept sending. 
I also learned some of the more basic things in journalism from him. Things like always ask for the full name of a person, get the basic facts accurate, get organized with your sources, and call up your journalist friends for a coffee ---- to learn what is going on. I never attended a journalism school, I learned these fundamental rules from the daily work.
It was an interesting year working with Peter, but I felt I could do more. I felt desperate to write stories on my own and see my own bylines.  But according to China's law, Chinese citizen could not work as a reporter in a foreign newspaper. Many news researchers for foreign news organizations turned to PR or consulting companies after several years, but I want to be a reporter. In addition, having interviewed so many Chinese reporters, I started to feel it is necessary to work within the system and learn how it really works. I also wanted to write in English so that the I will have more reader, so China Daily, the only national English newspaper, was the best choice.
I applied, passed the examination and became one of the two reporters selected by China Daily from thousands of candidates. I was assigned to the business department because they were short of hand. But I knew nothing about business. I accepted the offer happily for two reasons. First, learning something news is always appealing to me, and China'e economy is such an important topic. Second, I have learned that business reporting, compared with politics and society, is an area that is less controlled in China.
I read New York Times and Washington Post since college regularly, and I subscribed Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and Economist after I decided to be a business reporter. My chief editor found my talent in features writing when I interned, so I got to write longer business features and profile while do daily reporting on trade and retail industries. For the past two years, I have talked with nearly all the major entrepreneurs in the country. China often appears on the cover of western magazine as a dragon with claws, and the experience as a business reporter here allows me a chance to see on my own.    
I went to New York last autumn and bought a book to memorize my first trip abroad, Travel with Herodotus, written by the Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski. He spent most of his youth time in Africa and covered over 20 coups. Working for a cash-stripped Polish news agency, he was often reporting stories that his much richer Western colleagues missed. I was curious, how did he manage to do that?
On the airplane back to Beijing, I found Kapuscinski, who passed away last January, have one thing in common with the writer of Histories 2,000 years ago: they both have an instinct to inquire and tell. I thought we were the same kind of people, Herodotus, Kapuscinski, and me. Many people can look without seeing, listen without hearing. We chose not to do so, so we became journalist.   
Not surprisingly Ying was accepted into Stanford and we were deliriously elated. But soon the realization hit that she was not awarded a scholarship and nor did she have the money to pay for the tuition fees. Her parents were willing to give her their life savings for her to go to the Ivy League school, but she didn't want them to do that.

In the end she accepted a fellowship with New York University to study in the EU for a year. She was so excited to leave China and finally see the world, though she would miss her family, and her mother was most worried about her. She taught her parents how to use Skype so that they could be in contact everyday on the computer.

The last time I saw Ying in person was in September 2010 when she was in transit in Hong Kong on her way to London. We almost didn't meet because I couldn't locate her in the airport but when I finally did we had a big long hug. Over a small meal at Maxim's we tried to catch up in a few hours, but there was too much to say.

I received one or two postcards from her as well as a Christmas card -- perhaps the first time she'd ever sent one. After her fellowship was over, she managed to stay behind and write for China Daily and report on the Summer Olympics last year.

It wasn't until April she told me she was coming back to Beijing on orders from China Daily to go work at the Bangkok bureau. This was not something she wanted to do and after I asked her what was going on, she finally revealed that she had been verbally harassed by her male superior. I asked if touching was involved but she said no, but it sounded like she was devastated by not only one incident.

We were not there and Ying didn't disclose what was said, so we will never know what happened.

In my last online chat with her, Ying kept saying it was the end of the world, but I tried to persuade her otherwise, that she had to be strong, and she would overcome it with the love of her family and friends. I believed she could come out of this and become even stronger, but she was uncharacteristically pessimistic.

All we know is that on June 4 she jumped from the apartment building she lived in, located near China Daily. She apparently left a note for her boss but other than that we don't know exactly why she decided to end her life.

Perhaps she chose that day because it was the fourth anniversary of the day she quit China Daily to leave China. Ying told me that she had to get 15 signatures from different senior people in the company to officially release her and she managed to get all of them in one day. Maybe she associated this day with freedom.

Her employer gave some compensation to her parents, but we will never know what she wrote in the letter.

Ying -- why did you do this? Why did you not tell us what was going on? Why did you shut us out when we were willing to help you, to listen to you and to support you?

We all love you so much and will miss you dearly. I'm so sorry I only heard about your passing today. I hope you find your peace.


  1. nulle@nulle.com22 July 2013 at 18:04

    It is truly a shame about the suicide. that's also why everyone need to rise up to rid ourselves of any reminisence (sp?) of the CCP. This will happen why everyone have the courage to fight. again, the CCP CAN NOT BE TRUSTED.

  2. Ying stood out from the other reporters at the China Daily as one journalist who really "got it." I edited her stories for the China Daily business section when I started there as a copy editor in 2006. She would capture the telling details that other reporters wouldn't notice. I thought it was from her exposure to Western journalism working for Peter Goff of the Sunday Telegraph but Ying was already on her way before that.
    She visited me in New York in 2007 and then I wrote recommendations for her. She was on her way, studying and working abroad. And then... what happened?

  3. Hi -- I am a friend of Ying's from Europe and I just learned about what happened. Do you have a contact email address so I can email you a few questions? Thank you. With great sympathy, Stephen

    1. Hi Sidney

      Thanks for your message. I too am trying to find out what happened... I have just added a contact form at the top of the blog. Please fill it out and then I can contact you from there.


  4. So sad... She radiated warmth. I will remember her modest smile and shining eyes.


  5. This is very sad news but I am thankful to you for posting at such length about Ying, her life, her dreams and her decision to end it all.

    I knew Ying from the time when she studied in Denmark. I worked with her and a group of other Erasmus students on covering a conference about global dialogue, and she also came to my house for a Christmas party. She made a strong impression on me even though I only knew her for a short time. I had hoped to be able to see her career develop over time but it was not to be. What pain she must have felt. I hope she has found peace now.


    1. HI Kirsten

      Thank you so much for your memories of Ying. Really appreciate learning more about her time abroad.

  6. This was not the news we were expecting to hear about you dear Ying. Unbelievable email was inbox from kind friend; it was nearly the noon when I recently read it. The way this happened was of course not what we had ever imagined.
    I was rather, waiting your arrival from anywhere to see you in one of the villages of 21st century(though we call this a country) where people are learning to jump and most of the time they are crawling. And, equally I had said- ‘Ying this is Ironic to be sure, this part of the world still has something that many corners have already loosed, very stronger people are surviving, and 'yes' it is the whole story of human struggle.’
    I certainly had read the sense in you during our conversation and understood how much anxious you were to visit these parts and know much about the life world of traditional ones.
    Aha no, only symbols and memories are left with us and this small world became so much powerful to say'good bye' that you had not wanted it to be like it.

    You are dearly missed in our hearts. May the kind soul rest on profound sense of peace wherever you are. Love, your friend