When China revoked the credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters in February 2020, the newspaper’s China bureau chief, Jonathan Cheng ’05, was just six months into his job. China was angry about the paper’s coverage of COVID’s spread in Wuhan, which raised questions about government transparency, and an opinion piece calling China the “real sick man of Asia,” which one official called “racially discriminatory language.”
“I was being brought out into the (Chinese) Foreign Ministry and yelled at,” Cheng says. “I was told again and again, you must apologize for the headline, to which I’d say, ‘I can’t apologize because it wasn’t even my department.’”
U.S.-China relations grew more tense, and Cheng’s visa in Beijing was on the line. On its expiration date, Cheng and his wife kept booking new flights out of China, hoping to get a last-minute renewal notification. Two hours before the Public Security Bureau closed, Cheng got a visa renewal, but three of his colleagues didn’t. The news preceded a series of tit-for-tat moves as China and the U.S. both announced the expulsion of foreign-based journalists.
“I knew that government relations would be part of the job of being a bureau chief, but I didn’t realize that within six months of my arrival, I would be thrown into the deep end like this,” Cheng says. “My predecessor had been in China since the mid-1980s. He basically said, ‘You’ve gone through more in six months than I did in 30 years in China.’”
Cheng concentrated on history with studies in journalism and Chinese at Princeton, while writing for the University Press Club. Later, he reported in South Korea and New York for The Wall Street Journal before moving to Beijing, where he oversees the newspaper’s largest bureau outside of the U.S. headquarters.
“I’ve known our whole lives that China would be the biggest story of our times,” Cheng says.
Cheng is Chinese Canadian, but he spoke minimal Cantonese at home. For a while, he thought learning it would be too difficult, but then he watched friends sign up for classes at Princeton, prompted in part by China’s rising economic power and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “I had friends who after one year of taking the intensive native speaker track wrote letters to their grandparents,” he says. “I thought, well that’s what I want to be able to do, too.”
Cheng had long aspired to report news. Before the Internet, he followed his favorite baseball teams by picking up the newspaper in his driveway and reading the sports section. Gradually, his love for sports extended into other sections, though he left out business — an irony, given that most of his career has been with the business-centric Journal.
Following graduation, Cheng wanted to work at a newspaper. He applied to 40 internships in cities with sizeable populations and strong sports teams. He heard back from four newspapers and interviewed with the Journal.
“I was the most arrogant punk ever,” Cheng says. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t know business. I don’t know interest rates. It doesn’t really interest me, and I don’t really have a brain for it. I don’t know if it’s going to be a good fit.’”
The woman interviewing him told Cheng that all journalism comes down to stories about people. She said money underpins all industries, and the Journal was well equipped to write about money.
“You’re writing about ambitious people who are driven by the same things that everyone is driven by, which are greed, power, insecurity, lust, money, etc.,” Cheng recalls her saying. “Everyone is trying to do the same thing, so you should come and learn it.”
In China, Cheng grapples with stories of a slowing economy and geopolitical tensions.
“China’s economy has gotten incredibly wealthy over the last 40 years. More recently, there have been good quarters and positive surprises, but it’s now more of a two-way story,” Cheng said. “Things are deteriorating; things can go up and go down. The question is about how quickly it gets from double-digit percentage gains to five, four, or three percent, to what a mature economy would look like, and at what level.”