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Mao to now: Mike Chinoy's journeys

Reporter's time at CNN chronicles unparalleled changes in Asia

By Mike Chinoy
CNN Senior Asia Correspondent

Editor's note: Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy is leaving CNN this month after reporting for the network since early 1983. Chinoy reflects on how his assignments followed dramatic change around the world.

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Mike Chinoy in the Indonesian province of Aceh in January of 2005, following the Asian tsunami.

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- When I first joined CNN, in 1983, its headquarters was in the basement of a rundown country club, and the network had exactly five foreign correspondents to cover the entire world, including me.

My first assignment was war-ravaged Beirut. The foreign editor assured me I'd only be there a couple of weeks.

I left, many months later, after witnessing the bombing of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks at Beirut airport. We didn't know it then, but I'd just covered the deadly opening salvos in what's now become a defining news story of our time - the war between the United States and radical Islam.

Back then, CNN was an upstart. While established network anchors flew into Beirut in chartered jets, our bosses asked the entire CNN Beirut team to sleep on the floor of a colleague's house. Management wanted to save on hotel costs.

But there was no stopping the idea of 24-hour news.

In the Philippines, in 1986, during the People Power revolt which toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos, I broadcast non-stop, mostly over a phone, from rebel headquarters. It was one of the earliest occasions where, in an international crisis, viewers and players were learning of events in real time- as they happened.

I remember reporting live as the defense minister, on national TV, ordered a bombing raid on the building where I was. I felt like I'd just broadcast my own death sentence. Luckily, Marcos rescinded the order.

One senior American intelligence officer told a colleague, "Everything I know I've learned from CNN."

But it was in 1989, in Tiananmen Square, that the world really began to notice.

Two years earlier, I'd opened CNN's Beijing bureau. For a student of China, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

Now, my colleagues and I were reporting from China's capital, as pro-democracy students demanded change, only to be crushed by the Chinese army.

When Chinese officials ordered CNN off the air, with the confrontation televised live, the tensions in a long-isolated and secretive country suddenly became evident for all to see.

Tiananmen was a milestone, both for China and for television journalism. Its images were powerful, and enduring. But in the early 1990s, the process of reform, derailed by the crackdown, picked up steam again. And with the passage of time, I began to conclude that those images were obscuring, rather than illuminating, the extraordinary transformation under way, as China's communist leaders, in effect, embraced capitalism.

The country I'd first visited in 1973, when everyone wore Mao suits, got around on bicycles and toed the party line, was changing with blinding speed.

Spurred by senior leader Deng Xiaoping's exhortation that "It is glorious to get rich," a boom began which continues to this day.

The statistics tell the story. China's economy has been growing at an astonishing rate of 8 percent or more for years. China now produces two-thirds of the world's toys, half its DVD players, a third of its desktop computers, and a quarter of its mobile telephones. More than 100 million people in the country use the Internet.

Tens of millions of people have been lifted from abject poverty to, in some cases, astonishing wealth. Coastal cities such as Shanghai or Guangzhou now resemble their capitalist counterparts, Singapore and Hong Kong.

No other society in human history has undergone domestic change on the scale or with the speed that China has experienced.

As a TV reporter, I could only capture snapshots

I tracked down the model Maoist peasant I'd met on my first trip in 1973. Years later, now a private entrepreneur, he told me that everything I had seen in our first encounter was faked, staged by Communist party ideologues to fool visiting foreigners.

In Shanghai, its skyline unrecognizable from when I first saw it, I met an Internet entrepreneur, getting rich while testing the limits of government censorship of the web.

In Beijing, I interviewed Yao Ming, China's first global superstar, whose achievements on the basketball court symbolized how much the country had emerged from Maoist isolation.

Yet the reforms also brought wrenching dislocations. These too became a staple of my reporting.

A growing gap between rich and poor, the cities and the countryside, environmental degradation, massive corruption -- highlighted for me by my interview the feisty grandmother who exposed a scandal in which hundreds of thousands of peasants were infected with HIV from tainted blood -- raised questions about whether China could sustain its rise.

Meanwhile, this new Chinese revolution was unfolding in tandem with the news revolution CNN had launched. Portable satellite dishes, videophones, the Internet and other technological breakthroughs enabled us to report live from almost anywhere.

And I did. I covered the Gulf War from the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; the aftermath of September 11th in Pakistan; Kabul after the U.S. toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan; elections in Taiwan; Aceh after the tsunami. The list goes on.

Even the most reclusive place of all, North Korea, opened its doors. My trips there were unquestionably my toughest assignments. Government minders never left our side. Almost everything was staged. Still, I was able to get a glimpse into a secretive society, often at moments of high tension, looking, with limited but occasional success, for a way past the propaganda to the human dimension.

The North Koreans welcomed CNN because, in stark contrast to its early years, the network over the years had acquired clout and reach unimaginable when I first started. What the skeptics long ago derided as "Chicken Noodle News" is now the most well-known and respected news organization in the world.

Like CNN, I have grown, and learned, and matured over all these years. I've seen the best, and worst, of the human condition.

It's been an amazing journey.

But Confucius once said: those who would be constant in happiness or wisdom must often change.

So now it's time for a new adventure. I'm moving to the Pacific Council on International Policyexternal link in Los Angeles, where I'll write books, do research and teaching, and, after a lifetime on the road, get reacquainted with my family.

For the last 24 years, I've had a front row seat - watching history as it happened. It's been a rare privilege. And if it's helped those of you who've been along for the ride make at least a little bit better sense of your world, then I'll feel I've done my job.

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