Anthony Kuhn is the new Seoul correspondent for NPR, but the Chicago native and Washington University graduate started exploring the world through language as a boy growing up in the Midwest.
In elementary and high school, Kuhn studied French, Latin and ancient Greek, ultimately leading him to major in French literature at Washington University in St. Louis. During his freshman year, Kuhn added Chinese to his list of languages and chose that as his minor. He went on to earn a master’s degree from John Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.During his freshman year of college, Kuhn decided to learn Chinese and chose that as his minor.
Kuhn got his start in journalism in 1992. He never studied journalism or worked for a college newspaper. He “simply felt journalism fit my passion for storytelling and was the best medium for conveying my knowledge and experiences to a wider audience,” Kuhn told Gateway Journalism Review.After Kuhn graduated, he got his start in journalism in 1992. He never studied journalism or worked for a college newspaper. He “simply felt journalism fit [his] passion for storytelling, and was the best medium for conveying [his] knowledge and experiences to a wider audience.”
Before joining NPR in 2004, Kuhn wrote for the Far Eastern Economic Review and freelanced for news outlets like the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek. He was NPR’s London correspondent and Southeast Asia correspondent before covering China. He reported on China’s reaction to U.S. tariffs, public affairs relations, propaganda and censorship.
GJR talked to him about his life in China and about his new position.
Gateway Journalism Review: How was it when you got to Beijing, the first time? Has it changed dramatically over the years?
AK: I first visited Beijing as a tourist in 1982, early in the “reform and opening” era. China had only recently begun experimenting with free markets and entrepreneurship. There weren’t a lot of restaurants, nightlife or even cars on the streets in Beijing in those days. The pace of life was fairly slow, the country was just getting its first McDonalds and KFCs. Having a bottle of Coke was a treat back then. In many ways, Beijing in the early 80s looks a bit like North Korea looks now. Infrastructure was not great. Civil Society had yet to develop. Now it feels like a different country. One big difference is that politically, the country seems to be moving away from the reforms of that era, and becoming more authoritarian.
GJR: Did you ever see yourself as a foreign correspondent?
AK: I did not see myself as a foreign correspondent until the 1990s, when it seemed to me the best way of doing what I enjoyed: learning about foreign cultures and communicating what I found to American audiences. My grandparents were foreign correspondents, and spending time with them gave me an appealing introduction to the work and lifestyle of foreign correspondents.
GJR: What interested you to do international reporting?
AK: I got started in the news business in 1992. I visited China for the first time in 1982, and became increasingly interested in it. In 1991-1992, I studied at the Johns Hopkins U.-Nanjing U. Center for Chinese American Studies, where I studied Chinese history, philosophy, population studies, minority studies etc. Going into journalism seemed like an extension of my studies. I researched things I liked and told people about it. I always enjoyed storytelling, and journalism was one of the few fields where I could fully share my experiences in China with an American audience.
GJR: What stories are you currently writing or plan on writing that you think the Chinese immigrants living in U.S. should be made aware of?
AK: Although NPR’s audience is mostly American, I’m not writing for the benefit of anyone in particular. It’s for whoever’s interested. And I certainly hope all Americans, including Chinese Americans, take an interest in what’s going on in China. This summer, I went to Taishan city in Guangdong Province, which is one of the biggest and earliest sources of Chinese immigrants to the US. I reported on a type of summer camp which the Chinese government organizes to help ethnic Chinese from other countries learn about life and culture in China. The main point of the story is to say that overseas Chinese have been and will be an important resource for China and its development. They have contributed capital and knowledge. At the same time, China’s rise raises a lot of questions for overseas Chinese, including how do they feel about it, and to what degree, if any, do they want to participate in it.
GJR: As a former U.S. correspondent in China, a propaganda and censorship state, what advice would you give a future correspondent planning on covering this country?
AK: Censorship and propaganda are topics of great concern to me and other foreign journalists in China. Of course, all governments make use of censorship and propaganda, but China’s communist party considers them very important to maintaining their grip on power. My reporting is usually not censored in China. NPR’s website is not blocked here. Part of the reason for that is that NPR does not broadcast in Chinese, so the people who can understand our reports are not that many. The main problem is that many Chinese are afraid to speak to foreign reporters now, and that makes our job difficult. I’m confident that eventually, that will change, as the political climate eases. I just think it’s important for journalists not to be discouraged by this problem. They should know that it makes their work all the more important. The darker it gets, the more journalists are needed to shine a light on what is happening.
GJR: According to NPR, you are now stationed in Seoul? Is it any different from reporting in China?
AK: I arrived in Seoul just this week to begin my new posting, although I’ve been coming here to report now and then over the past 15 years, while based in Beijing. It’s very, very different from China. South Korea is tiny compared to China. It’s also much more affluent – like Japan, it’s basically “first world Asia.” The Internet is fast and mostly uncensored, except from some North Korean sites. In China, the Internet often feels shut off from the rest of the world. Unlike China, South Korea is technically at war, as the Korean War was ended by an armistice, not a peace treaty. There is a sizable US military presence here, including a US army base across the street from my apartment. I will be covering North and South Korea and Japan, and I will be focusing a lot on the North Korean nuclear issue, as well as the problems Japan and South Korea face because of their aging, shrinking populations. It’s a trend which China and the rest of the world will soon follow.