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Journalist Turned Diplomat

Dec 02, 2022

Jaime Florcruz has been tapped by Ferdinand Marcos Jr (Bongbong) to be the next Philippines ambassador to China. It’s a rare and special appointment and it bodes well for smoothing out diplomatic difficulties. Indeed it’s hard to imagine a better appointment for balancing the interests of both Manila and Beijing while not alienating Washington. It also represents an open-mindedness and willingness to think out of the box on the part of Marcos Jr, because he is promoting the appointment of an anti-Marcos activist who had been blacklisted by his father, Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. 

Jaime Florcruz was a Filipino student activist when he first went to China for what he thought would be a three week visit. History intervened, and he ended up spending the next half century living in China, making Beijing his home. What’s more, he was gainfully employed for over thirty years by top-tier American media brands such as Newsweek, Time and CNN. He spent most of those years living in Qijiayuan and Jianguomen diplomatic compounds, where China journalists and diplomats were sequestered by tradition. One upside of this now-dated practice is that journalist-turned diplomat Florcruz should have one of the smoothest occupational transitions imaginable, because he’s been part of that joint milieu for decades now. 

When Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in July 1971, Florcruz, a prominent student activist visiting a communist country found himself effectively stranded. China offered asylum of sorts, but this was during the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, so the best he could be offered in such circumstances was the opportunity to join the toiling masses as a laborer. He worked in agriculture carrying night soil and living in Spartan conditions, and then, rather uniquely for a foreigner, landed himself a position on a fishing boat crew working in the Yellow Sea. 

If the farmer-sailor combination isn’t a good crash course in common living and spoken vernacular, I don’t know what is. When Mao died in 1976, the harsh conditions of the Cultural Revolution were gradually eased and Florcruz, now known by his Chinese name “Jimi,” returned to Beijing to study. He learned Chinese well enough to be admitted to Beijing University as a member of the class of ’77.  The then unknown Li Keqiang was one fellow student, and Bo Xilai, the son of Politburo member Bo Yibo, was another. 

I first met Jimi in the early ‘80s when the number of resident foreigners was small enough that you could depend on running into them in the Beijing Hotel.  Jimi landed a job at Time magazine around the time I was working on the film set of the “Last Emperor” and through his introduction, I was invited to write a piece about Chinese film. The thing that stood out in my mind about Jimi, then and throughout the years that followed, was his humble, easy-going nature. He was not yet bureau chief – that would come much later – and his trajectory at CNN was similar. He spent more time helping other people than promoting himself. 

Florcruz has a high comfort level with China and Chinese feel comfortable with him, but he is very popular with Americans, too, and now lauded as the longest serving foreign journalist in Beijing. 

If anyone deserved the nickname as dean of the foreign journalist corps, it was Florcruz. 

A fluent speaker of English, and by necessity very good in Chinese, he was born and brought up in a country that had once been an American colony and educated in English, and was sufficiently cued into things American by interest and temperament that he could pass for American, even before he ever stepped foot on U.S. soil. It was rather late in his career that he finally had a chance to live in the U.S. as a Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. 

As unique as Jimi’s situation sounds, it was actually reproduced in triplicate, because there were two other former Filipino student activists stranded in China who eventually worked their way into journalism as well. 

I’m tempted to call them comrades, but not in the political sense of the term. Florcruz, along with Santa “Chito” Romera and Eric Baculinao, regularly met for Sunday breakfast during the height of their busy journalism careers. 

It was an honor to attend one of their breakfasts. One special thing they shared, being neither American nor Chinese, was the ability to look at things from both sides without being fully invested in a single national view. Nationalism didn’t come into it. They also worked largely behind the scenes, the kind of unsung heroes that make great journalism possible, handling research, logistics, and interview prep for the big shots who came flying in and flying out. 

Chito Romana worked for ABC news as a fixer, and Eric Baculinao has spent his career at NBC News. 

One of the great unacknowledged ironies, and hidden sources of strength of U.S. reporting in this period, was that three of the top U.S. media outlets were guided behind the scenes by former student activists from the Philippines who were fluent in English and had spent decades in China. 

Florcruz was well respected in U.S. political and journalistic circles, but he also retained the respect and cooperation of the Chinese establishment, despite covering tough topics like the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the suicide of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, who was released to house arrest after many years in prison. 

Jimi’s colleague Chito, likewise quiet, unassuming, and quick to help others, retired from a productive career in journalism to return to his home country. There his in-depth experience in China did not go unnoticed and though it came as a surprise to many, Chito Santa Romana was named Philippines Ambassador under Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. 

It surprised many people that a former student activist opposed to the Manila government should one day be its representative in a major capital like Beijing. Ditto for Jimi. 

Sadly, Chito Romana passed away last year during a three-week Covid quarantine. It was a great loss for diplomacy and journalism alike, but entirely appropriate that his replacement should be one of his closest friends and comrades, Jimi Florcruz. 

Florcruz once told China Daily he was "willing to work for Filipino-China friendship" but will leave it to "the wisdom of top leaders and diplomats of the two countries" to resolve ongoing disputes. 

He’s a top diplomat now. 

In his new role as Philippine ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the People’s Republic of China, Florcruz will also handle diplomatic matters concerning North Korea and Mongolia.

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