The Nanfang is launching a new series called PRD People, in which we profile some interesting people living in the PRD and learn about their lives here. In the first installment, we look at a foreign correspondent who has decided to call Shenzhen home.
Despite all of the sensational and significant things that happen in Guangdong, almost all foreign correspondents who cover China are in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong.
The only accredited foreign journalist to be based in Shenzhen is 39 year-old Michael Standaert from the United States. Covering regulatory and legal news primarily on environment and trade for Bloomberg BNA, Standaert chose to open a bureau in the city in 2010 after scouting around the Pearl River Delta.
He kindly took the time to talk to The Nanfang about his life here.
Coming to Shenzhen
Explaining his decision, Standaert told The Nanfang: “If I were based in Hong Kong, I wouldn’t be able to come into mainland China as easily because of the journalist visa process.” Moreover, Shenzhen is well known for being a place in which reforms are piloted.
In his three and a half years here, Standaert has lived in Shekou, Futian, Dafen and Baishilong. “They all have their own flavour,” he said, before going on to defend Shenzhen against some of the criticisms commonly levelled against it.
“I’ve never had any experience of being afraid in Shenzhen,” he said, squashing a common Hong Kong refrain that the city is dangerous and crime-ridden.
The three-bedroom apartment he currently lives in in Baishilong with his Chinese wife and 7-month old daughter boasts a mountain view. When asked to name a “hidden gem” of Shenzhen, Standaert names Baishilong, which he displays a keen knowledge of.
Happiness and hardship
Standaert met his wife in Shenzhen and his daughter was born here. Being too busy to study Chinese comprehensively, the experience of attending the birth and trying to communicate with the doctors and nurses, which he describes it as his best though most stressful experience here.
Standaert claims to go through waves of being highly tolerant and highly irritable when it comes to behaviour such as failures to queue and staring on the metro, which he takes every day to work. But a much greater concern is bureaucracy. As well as owing a large amount of money due to a tax mix-up, he has to think about how much stability there is for pro-journalists in China in the aftermath of Reuters reporter Paul Mooney’s visa being declined.
He told The Nanfang:
I’m very sad for Paul and the state of journalism in China because he was able to do a lot of stories over the past few years that need telling and that many of us, including Chinese journalists, would like to do but are either constrained by time, our own areas of coverage that we are locked into, or censorship, both overt and self, that limits the capacity of all journalists here to work as they should
However, Standaert’s role does not involve delving into the same “sensitive” waters as Mooney so is not too concerned about his own situation in this respect.
Love of literature
Despite having much success as a journalist, Standaert has an even greater passion. In 2007, his novel “The Adventures of the Pisco Kid” was published.
The novel was written while he was home in the United States doing menial work to support himself after a first stint in Europe as a freelancer. It is a satirical exploration of American themes, particularly that of American exceptionalism that fuels everything from leftist do-gooderism to extreme Protestant evangelism on the right wing of U.S. politics. The intersection of apocalyptic Protestant evangelical ideas and politics in the U.S. is something he has also covered in his non-fiction writing.
Standaert studied literature as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa and journalism in a master’s program through Cardiff University and has an impressive collection of books. His novel is described in one of several favourable Amazon reviews as being “gutsy satire for gutsy readers.”
Another review describes the book as creating “a whole new writing style.” However, Standaert currently earns his living in relatively prosaic ways – not unlike a lot of Shenzhen residents.