A Four-Decade Long March
Eric Baculinao: From student visitor to NBC NEWS Beijing Bureau Chief
By Dyan Ruiz
Law student Eric Baculinao visited China in 1971 and soon discovered that returning to the Philippines would mean his arrest.
This twist of fate would result in his living through Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in a long road that led to becoming the NBC News Bureau Chief for Beijing.
“We left hoping that we would be there for only three weeks. Instead, well for me, it’s been 41 years now,” Baculinao said to more than a dozen members of a private audience in Toronto on Wednesday, Sept. 19 at the SEAS-Centre on Gerard Street.
The Chinese government was opening up its diplomatic relations and invited university students from the Philippines to visit.
The Philippine President was Ferdinand Marcos. Shortly after the students arrive in China, Marcos suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. The government could arrest anyone it deemed a threat without bringing them to court.
The students were blacklisted for being leaders in the student revolt against the Marcos regime. And so they stayed and they waited.
“China then and now are almost two worlds apart,” Baculinao said of the largely rural, impoverished country at the time he arrived.
A year passed and the situation in the Philippines worsened. In 1972, Marcos declared Martial Law and their passports would eventually expire, and in 1974 it began to sink in that the students were stuck indefinitely.
They began learning Mandarin and volunteered to go to the countryside like the millions of educated Chinese youth who were sent to work and learn from the peasant farmers as part of Chairman Mao’s vision of an egalitarian society.
Despite their laboring, unlike the Chinese, the Filipino students “were not treated as workers, they were treated as guests,” Baculinao said to the group about their years during the Cultural Revolution. They said the Chinese government paid for all their expenses including their stay in a guesthouse, complete with their own cook.
Those years also included experiencing life on a fishing boat, which they requested because “they were craving seafood,” Baculinao said with a laugh. When the universities reopened in 1975, they studied Chinese language and culture.
In the mid-1980s, after Chairman Mao had died and China began opening up to foreign companies, Baculinao and other students who were part of the group, Jaime FlorCruz and Chito Sta. Romana, began to freelance for American media companies.
At the time, there were no office buildings for the companies to base themselves in. The journalists worked in hotels and like the millions of others in socialist China, were allocated ration cards for food.
The decades of immersion in Chinese culture would prove to be the foundations for successful careers as journalists for the three men, who became nicknamed the “Pinoy Gang of 3.” FlorCruz, who spoke to the PPCO in Toronto in Aug. 2010, would go on to head CNN’s Beijing Bureau. Sta. Romana was his counterpart for ABC. Baculinao became NBC’s Beijing Bureau Chief, his current position.
By 1986, when President Corazon Aquino and the People Power Movement finally ousted Marcos from the clutches of his dictatorship in the Philippines, Baculinao was already working for NBC.
“The attraction of observing history in the making,” Baculinao said, “was too tempting,” and despite finally having an option to return to the Philippines with a new passport, he stayed to work as a journalist in China.
The Filipino nationals would go on to cover the major events of modern day China, including the Tienanmen Square massacre, a topic that journalists still need to avoid.
“We operate in a system of regulations that maintains the ability of China to keep control of how information and news can impact social stability in the country,” Bacaulinao said in an interview.
The restrictions on foreign media have largely loosened over the years, especially since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Bacaulinao recalls that in the 1980s, it was very difficult to get a permit to travel to different parts of the country and the areas that were allowed were very few.
The rules for journalists and their stories remain stringent, especially when it comes to sensitive issues and areas, such as Tibet and Taiwan. For instance, when protests in Tibet erupt, it is very difficult to get a travel permit.
Since the government is not a democracy, officials immediately suppress any dissent that could build momentum, “since the only way the government can be replaced is through a collapse,” Bacaulinao said.
But he noted to the journalists who gathered to hear his story that the government also monitors the dissent on the internet and on the street to debate on “What’s next?” in order to adjust their policies. Ever fearful of popular revolt, the government survives through a focus on security and China’s economic performance.
When he began covering China for an American audience, there was a romance to the stories. “Everything was so cute” he said to the journalists. Now, China is the second largest economy in the world and is threatening to beat the USA at the their own capitalist game and Bacaulinao is at the centre of it all.