Chen Xu credits Confucian philosophy with calming his nerves as he raced down Israel’s Highway 4 towards his first taste of war.
It was 15 November 2012 and the young Chinese journalist was heading for the Gaza Strip after the start of a major Israeli assault dubbed Operation Pillar of Defence.
Air-to-ground missiles rained down on Gaza’s cinder-block sprawl and Hamas militants warned “the gates of hell” had been thrown open. But Chen, a 24-year-old correspondent from China’s state-run news giant Xinhua, says he “felt peace” as he passed through the Erez checkpoint and realised “the Gaza Strip was on fire”.
It has been more than a century since the man celebrated as China’s first war correspondent – Hu Shi’an – chronicled the Wuchang Uprising, a 1911 military insurrection that helped topple the Qing dynasty. Until the 1990s, however, it was still rare to find Chinese journalists reporting from international conflicts.
Today, from Mosul to Misrata, they are an ever present, as China’s state-run press dramatically expands its global footprint as part of an ambitious media offensive designed to project the country’s voice to the four corners of the earth.
Shixin Zhang, the author of a book on Chinese war correspondents, said China’s race to the front began a little over two decades ago when editors in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou began sending journalists to conflicts including the Gulf War and Kosovo.
In 2008 that race became a stampede after Beijing announced it would pump 20bn yuan (£2.3bn) into key state-media outlets such as Xinhua, CCTV, China Radio International and Communist party mouthpiece the People’s Daily in a bid “to get its message across to the outside world”. “The current struggle between East and West is mainly for the right to be heard,” Huang Youyi, the vice president of China International Publishing Group, said at the time.
Privately-owned newspapers and television channels have also joined the rush, hoping to boost ratings and sales. In 2011, dozens of reporters jetted into Libya to witness Colonel Gaddafi’s downfall, reputedly the largest Chinese contingent ever to cover a single conflict.
Chen, now 29, is typical of this new wave of Chinese conflict reporter; a group of young, highly-educated and still largely male adventure-seekers flocking to trouble spots across the globe.
Armed with a degree in Arabic from Beijing’s Foreign Studies University Chen landed his first job at Xinhua’s headquarters in 2009. The following year, just months before the start of the Arab Spring, editors asked him to move to Cairo to beef up the agency’s regional newsdesk. “No, I want to be a correspondent,” he recalls telling his boss. “I want to go the front line.”
In February 2011 Chen touched down at Tel Aviv’s international airport to join Xinhua’s two-man Ramallah team, covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for both a Chinese and international audience.
Born and raised in the tranquil eastern city of Hangzhou, Chen remembers feeling shock at how Gaza’s two million residents were squeezed into “a big prison”, a 27-mile slither of land along the Mediterranean coast. “The Gaza Strip is even smaller than Haidian district [in Beijing].”
His first experience of war came in the second year of his first foreign posting, a position for which he admits being ill-prepared. “I almost didn’t know how to take photos.”
As the death toll – which activists say reached about 170, including six Israelis and 167 Palestinians – mounted, Chen set about documenting the human cost of the eight-day conflict.
He attended a child’s funeral and made dawn trips to the Shafia hospital, Gaza’s largest, photographing grieving families including a father and son who had lost nine relatives to an Israeli airstrike.
One afternoon Chen struck up conversation with two Palestinian journalists. Less than an hour later they were dead, their car incinerated by an Israeli missile.“They weren’t bodies even. I just saw ashes,” Chen remembers.
One of the few female members of this new generation of Chinese war reporter is Yuan Wenyi.
Despite years of reporting experience in China, including covering the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Yuan said editors at Shanghai’s Dragon TV initially rejected her request to cover the Libyan revolution “because I was a woman”.
Eventually, however, she prevailed, spending four months reporting from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi alongside compatriots from China’s Guangzhou Daily, Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis newspapers. “My eyes help my viewers to see what war and conflict really is,” said Yuan, 36, who has also reported from Ukraine and Syria.
Zhang said China’s young, competitive war reporters shared much with their western counterparts. But since their salaries were bankrolled by one-party China, correspondents for state-run outlets such as Xinhua and CCTV also had a “political role” and were expected to file stories supporting Beijing’s take on world affairs.
“They have to conform to foreign policy,” she said.
Chen played down the political side of his work: “We just tell what we see.”
But others are unrepentant about how their reporting dovetails with Communist party objectives, notably by denigrating pro-democracy uprisings such as the Arab Spring in order to bolster the case for authoritarian rule back home in China.
“Of course, my stories are infused with China’s interests, just as those of western journalists,” are influenced by the views of their proprietors, said one correspondent, a card-carrying party-member who has reported from several Middle Eastern trouble-spots and declined to be named.
China’s global media boom – Xinhua now claims about 180 foreign bureaux up from about 100 four years ago – means there is no shortage of opportunity for budding war reporters.
After a brief stint in Beijing for the birth of his daughter, Angie, Chen was posted to Baghdad in September 2014, arriving just after the execution of American journalist James Foley by Islamic State militants.
“I kept thinking, ‘What if a car besides me explodes? What will happen? I thought maybe I wouldn’t have a chance to survive,” he said.
“I had a daughter who was waiting for me in China,” he added. “I said to myself: ‘You cannot die or lose a leg or something. You must keep safe.’”
Chen said his experiences had forever changed his outlook on the world. “I am different from other people my age. I saw things. I opened my eyes. And I saw not only life in Beijing, in China. I saw real life in the whole world.”
Additional reporting by Wang Zhen