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Pinoy Gang of 3: Writing China's story

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Their saga and journalistic career span almost the same length as the diplomatic relations between the Philippines and China. Their life story is as colorful and awe-inspiring as some of the best journalistic pieces in their vibrant career as international correspondents.

The “Gang of Three,” as they are popularly known in the Filipino community in Beijing, is composed of Jaime “Jimi” Florcruz, Chito Sta. Romana and Ericson “Eric” Baculinao, former Filipino student activists who labored in the Chinese countryside before making their mark as top-notch international journalists covering China. Jimi is the current Bureau Chief of CNN, Chito has recently retired as Bureau Chief of ABC News and Eric leads the NBC Beijing Bureau.

When they first arrived in China back in 1971 upon the invitation of the Chinese People's Friendship Association for a three-week tour, Jimi, Chito and Eric didn't expect it would turn out to be a long stay in China that would be a life-changing opportunity for them.

Being in the blacklist of student activists being pursued by the Marcos Regime, Jimi, Chito and Eric eventually decided to stay in China hoping they will be able to return home soon. But as fate would have it, it took more than a decade before they were able to return home.

Although their Chinese hosts were gracious to them, and they were excited to experience the Cultural Revolution, first hand, boredom eventually set in. They were cut off from the outside world and schools were closed. It was only on their third year in China when they were able to continue their education by enrolling at the Peking Languages Institute. It was at the language school where they renewed ties with the outside world through classmates from other countries.

The years of being stranded in China saw Jimi, Chito and Eric experiencing a different kind of education outside the confines of a conventional classroom set-up, a phase quite unusual for the student intellectuals, who prior to their years in exile in China already had their respective degrees. Jimi studied advertising at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Chito earned liberal arts and commerce degrees at the Dela Salle University, while Eric graduated cum laude in Political Science and was studying to become a lawyer at the University of the Philippines.

Adjunct to their know-how as student activists turned top-notch journalists is an impressive appendage to their names as intellectuals turned farmers, not to mention occasional fishermen. Each has his own story to tell of one’s life in the Chinese countryside. Years of hard labor, immersion with the locals and standing witnesses to every cultural, social and economic transformation - from Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen incident of 1989 to years of economic reform leading the way to events like hosting the 2008 Summer Olympic Games - have formed the Gang of Three to what they have become – experts in China. On many occasions, a good number of Philippine government officials and diplomats would turn to them for counsel on Sino-related matters.

The resumption of diplomatic contacts between the U.S. and China in the late 1970s following Deng Xiaoping’s open-up policy unlocked opportunities for Jimi, Chito and Eric to carve their career in journalism. It was to their advantage that they speak English and fluent Chinese aside from their mother tongue that they landed jobs in various international news organizations.

Jimi joined Newsweek in 1980 and Time Magazine in 1982 where he eventually became Bureau Chief for 10 years, until his stellar stint as Bureau Chief of CNN. He was a two-term president of the 200-member Foreign Correspondents Club of China and is considered the dean of the Foreign Press Corps in Beijing. In 2000-2001, he researched on U.S.-China relations and international affairs as Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. In between his busy news reporting duties, he also managed to co-chair two successful Philippine Balls in Beijing that raised money for charity.

“Over 40 years, China has been my haven, my crucible and my training ground. I cut my teeth here as a China watcher and international correspondent. I found my niche here. But whenever I can, I never miss a chance to introduce myself as a Filipino, a proud one,” Jimi, who also earned his B.A. in Chinese history from Peking University, said.

Prior to their works in ABC and NBC, respectively, Chito and Eric were free-lance reporters in newspapers, using only pseudonyms. Eric wrote with the Hong Kong Standard using the pen name Frederick Lee.

In 2008, Eric spearheaded NBC’s much-acclaimed coverage of the Beijing Olympics, considered by many as China's coming out party in the world stage.

“Everyday of our stay in China was literally a new day, given the country's rapid progress. Living in Beijing and later working for the media, I was a ring-side witness to the spectacular transformation of China, from a backward, isolated nation of the early '70s, to the great global power that it is today. Of course, China's rise from poverty to prosperity was no easy feat,” Eric, the bureau manager of NBC News Worldwide who won an Emmy Award, said.

“But China showed that mistakes and setbacks could yield valuable lessons for greater success. Deng, for example, boldly accelerated his reform after the trauma of Tiananmen. As a Filipino and a journalist, I feel privileged to have studied closely China's development story, from which we can benefit as a nation. I am inspired by President Aquino's determination to carry on the unfinished task of tapping the full potential of Filipino-Chinese friendship and cooperation in order to advance the Filipino people's development needs,” he added.

Chito was the China producer for ABC News since 1989 and served as the Beijing bureau chief until his retirement in 2010. As a broadcast journalist, his work in covering China has been recognized. He and his news team won an Emmy award in the News and Documentary category from the U.S. National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2000 and earned two other Emmy nominations in 2001 and 2006.

During his ABC career spanning more than two decades, he covered the major stories in China, including the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, the U.S.-China crisis over the Hainan plane incident in 2001, the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and the Beijing summit meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s President Hu Jintao in 2009.

“Due to first the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus due to the Plaza Miranda bombing and then the declaration of martial law, I ended up as an exile in China up to the fall of the Marcos regime. But it also gave me opportunity to learn Mandarin and study Chinese politics and economics. In a sense, martial law turned me into a China specialist and gave me a rare chance to be an eyewitness to the historic transformation of China,” Chito, who has a Master’s degree in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, recalled.

Of the three, Jimi and Eric are still active in their fields. Jimi also maintains a weekly online column for CNN aptly entitled “Jaime’s China,” which provides an in-depth analysis of Chinese society and politics.

Eric is still NBC’s Bureau Chief and heads the team’s producers, correspondents and researchers. All three are married to fellow Filipinos and have grown up children of their own.

Chito is enjoying his retirement in the Philippines, but has become a much-sought after analyst and commentator on Philippines-China relations.

“The future is bright but the road is tortuous,” Chito, quoting a Chinese saying, argued at a recent forum in Manila that the disputes over the disputed Spratlys will be best resolved through reasoned diplomacy. (PNA Feature)




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