Tomáš Etzler: In China they have everything – but the oppression is more brutal than we had in Czechoslovakia

Tomáš Etzler, photo: Elena Horálková / Czech Radio

Few if any Czechs are more familiar with China than Tomáš Etzler, who was Czech TV’s correspondent there from 2006 to 2014. When we spoke, Etzler told me that right now we only know the tip of the iceberg of China’s mishandling of the coronavirus. But before turning to what the Covid-19 pandemic will mean for China’s international standing, we discussed the journalist’s own fascinating life. It has included spells as an immigrant in the US and reporting from conflict zones for CNN.

Tomáš Etzler,  photo: Elena Horálková / Czech Radio
You moved to the US in the early 1990s. What led you to move to America?

“There were several reasons for my decision to move to the United States.

“First of all, it was my dream. I grew up in communism and I always was looking up to America.

“So I started thinking about emigrating to America as early as when I was maybe 13 or 14.

“The second reason was my disappointment in the 1989, 1990 Velvet Revolution.

“I was working in a studio of Czechoslovak Television [in Ostrava] then, which was of course during communism completely filled with Communists.

“I thought everything was going to change and yes, of course we were able to do many more things, but the people who had been harassing me were still there.

“These people, former Communist Party members, were still working in the television station five years ago.

“And in 1991 I decided I didn’t want to work with these people anymore and I thought the situation in Prague would be similar, so I decided to go the United States.”

How did the reality of living and working in the States compare to what you had expected before you got there?

“It was something completely different.

“First of all, I started in Salt Lake City, which is not a town I had been reading about in American books I was reading [laughs].

“It was a very prudish, very conservative society.

“I also struggled extremely, basically just to survive. I arrived on a tourist visa and had to work illegally in the United States.

“I started thinking about emigrating to America as early as when I was maybe 13 or 14.”

“That all changed later when I was given an amnesty by the immigration services, or bureau, and became legal.

“But the struggle was long.

“It took me many, many years of working basically as a day labour worker – I was doing whatever jobs were coming in my direction.”

By the end of the 1990s you got work at CNN, where you later became a correspondent. You were reporting from places like Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, all of which sound like very tough spots to me. Were you attracted by the danger? Or was taking on these kinds of risky assignments the best way for you to climb the career ladder at CNN?

“You know, I was attracted by the scale of the events.

“Somebody said that journalists write the first draft of history and this is how I saw it – they were massive events I was covering, which are today in the history books.

“I’m sure that some of my reporting contributed to the facts which were getting out of these areas where I was the only person a number of times, in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“That was the number one reason.

“Second was that I knew that this was an extremely responsible job, that American taxpayers who were paying for these wars were depending on information that we provided as journalists from those places.

“And yes, you are right, it was an adventure.

“I love to travel and I could never travel during communism.

“So CNN really made up for it [laughs].”

Did you have any particularly hairy or dangerous experiences in war zones?

Aftermath of an air strike during the Second Battle of Fallujah,  photo: Public Domain
“There were a number of them.

“I was in several fire fights. I was also injured in Fallujah in April 2004, when I was with a unit of US marines and we got a direct hit by mortar grenade.

“Two marines were killed instantly. Another nine were injured and some of those injured lost parts of their legs later.

“I was in a fire fight in Haiti.

“So yes, I was in a couple of very dodgy moments and I have to say I was lucky I guess.”

Did you ever think, This is it, this is my last few minutes?

“Yes. Maybe in Fallujah, but it wasn’t that bad. Because we were hit by this mortar, but I was with the US marines.

“But then what happened was a huge attack on the building that we were in.

“At one point I noticed marines throwing hand grenades out of the window and I thought, If they’re throwing hand grenades, somebody is very, very close.

“And I was thinking, What am I going to do if the insurgents take over the building?

“A second, even worse situation was in Haiti, when President Aristide’s government collapsed. It was also in 2004.

“There was no police, there was no military by United Nations mandate, and the gangs took over the streets.

“We ran into one of those gangs and there was guy, drunk and probably stoned, holding a shotgun to my chest.

“And this was the first time my knees really started to shake, because I thought, That’s it.

“But he didn’t shoot and until today I’m convinced that he didn’t have ammunition.”

People often talk about post traumatic stress disorder. Did you suffer from that, after such experiences?

“We ran into a gang and there was guy, drunk and probably stoned, holding a shotgun to my chest. And this was the first time my knees really started to shake, because I thought, That’s it.”

“No. Well [laughs], you should ask my family or people around me.

“But I don’t think so. I don’t have nightmares.

“But there’s an interesting story. Once after a couple of events like this, CNN sent me to a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto, which has a very and extensive well-known programme, or studies into post-traumatic syndrome, and I talked to a psychiatrist.

“I hadn’t wanted to go, they sent me – it was a mandatory trip.

“I told him, Listen, I don’t want to waste your time, I’m fine.

“He said, Tell me, what is the last movie you saw?

“I said, You know what, I don’t really go to movies any more. First of all, I don’t really find them that interesting, I get bored very quickly, and I have other things to do – I’m busy with my work.

“Then he said, What is the last book you read?

“I said, I also don’t have much time to read, because I have to follow the news, I have to follow the news agencies. And if I do read something it’ll be, like, a history of Shia Muslims in Iraq, and stuff like that.

“And he said, When is the last time you want to a park for a walk?

“And I looked at him and said, Why would I do that?

“He said, And you think you are OK [laughs]? Unless there are bullets flying around your head, you have no interest in anything.

“So that got me thinking. But no, I don’t have nightmares about these events I witnessed or I went through.

“I have to say, though, that I don’t have nightmares from that part of my work, but I do still have nightmares about China.”

From 2006 to 2014 you were Czech Television’s correspondent in China. You grew up under communism and China is of course a communist state. Were some aspects of life there familiar to you from your young days?

Photo: Gaston Laborde,  Pixabay / CC0
“Yes – the oppression.

“China has a completely different style of socialism, or communism. They themselves call it ‘communism with Chinese characteristics’.

“In Czechoslovakia we had nothing to eat – there was no food, there were lines for meat.

“There were lines for clothes. You know, it was just basic, basic, basic.

“In China they have everything. You name the goods, from a Gucci bag to a Ferrari car, they have it.

“You can buy everything if you have the money, though hundreds of millions of Chinese still cannot afford these goods.

“But the oppression, the lack of freedom of speech, the lack of any freedom is even more brutal, I would say, in China than it was in Czechoslovakia.

“That communist ideology which stifles any dissent – the Communists were basically the same in Czechoslovakia and China.

“You know, as long as you are nodding and you are agreeing with them, you are fine.

“The moment you don’t agree, that your world ideas, your ideology, your beliefs are any way different than the Communists, you are in trouble in China.

“And you were in Czechoslovakia, especially if you speak out.”

Obviously China has been in the news enormously recently. After their previous epidemic with SARS in the early 2000s, why didn’t they learn more from that, do you think?

“Again, it’s about how you relay information.

“There were doctors in China as early as in December who were warning against it. They were saying, This is a new type of virus – we have never seen anything like that; it reminds us of SARS.

“I still have nightmares about China.”

“They were stifled. They were arrested.

“Some of them were held for up to three or four days and then they had to sign a letter, which was circulated on the internet, saying they had spread rumours, that their claims were false.

“They were also some citizen journalists, or bloggers, who reported on the number of deaths and filmed on the streets.

“They were arrested and they are still missing – people don’t know where they are.

“So China doesn’t like bad news.

“The mayor of Wuhan, where this whole epidemic started, also was aware of what was going on, but then he said very openly at one press conference that he first had to inform the Communist Party – and the Communist Party gave him guidance on how to proceed, how to talk about it, how to give this information out and start doing some steps against it.

“It took the Chinese government – and I think this is the direct responsibility of President Xi Jinping – four weeks.

“They lost an incredibly valuable four weeks because it took them until the end of January, when they announced that there was an epidemic of a new, unknown virus.

“So that absolute control that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to impose on every person in that country of course also hampers any efforts in situations like that to inform people and to stop this epidemic.”

China has been supplying face masks and other materials to a lot of the world. Also they initially seemed to win some praise for their handling of the Covid-19 situation – before all these reports about the massive underreporting of numbers and the suggestions that they have acted faster to combat the spread of the virus. How do you think China will come out of this whole situation? Will it be weakened on the international stage? Or strengthened?

“As they say, that’s the million-dollar question.

“I think that China is very well aware what damage it has caused to itself by reporting it late and by basically covering up what happened in Wuhan and elsewhere in China.

Photo: ČTK/AP/Ng Han Guan
“They went into a full-blown ideological kind of war, not only to rewrite the history of what has happened in Wuhan in December and January, but also they want to kind of get themselves in a position of the world’s saviour.

“It’s very nice that they provide these supplies, but it’s not charity –they charge a lot of money for them.

“That also brought a lot of Western countries to think... Like in the Czech Republic, General [Petr] Pavel said, This shows that industries such as the health products industry, should not be completely given to another country, exactly because of situations like this.

“If you look at this week’s newspapers, every newspaper around the world – including The Economist – is debating this issue: Is it going to strengthen China, or is it going to weaken China?

“My personal opinion is that in China the position of President Xi Jinping is going to strengthen.

“But internationally I don’t think so.

“I think now we only know the tip of the iceberg of the missteps and mishandling that China did.

“China today [Friday] already increased the number of dead in Wuhan by 50 percent and the CIA is investigating it – their estimation is that up to 40,000 people, or maybe more, died in Wuhan alone.

“I think that this is tremendous damage to China’s reputation abroad.

“People are talking about China more than even before.

“So my personal opinion is that internationally China’s reputation is going to be damaged.”

You spent eight years or so in China. Personally, do you have affection for China or the Chinese people?

“I do. Absolutely. I do feel for Chinese people.

“I have a lot of friends. I know a lot of young, talented people who have college educations but don’t have the connections in the Communist Party.

“They are not happy there. They know that they cannot grow.

“In China you cannot get into the really good positions that you are capable of handling if you don’t have the connections.

“People don’t like the lack of freedoms. They don’t like how the Chinese government is controlling every step of theirs.

“They don’t like the bad environment.

“My idea is that China is not going to become a super power, or a power of the 21st century, under the government they have.”

“They would like to have better health care, they would like to have a better cultural life.

“This is not an exaggeration, but I don’t know a single young person who I worked with or who I met with in China who would not to leave.

“They are not happy.

“They are of course hundreds of millions of Chinese who don’t think.

“I asked them about politics, they said, We don’t care – it’s them and us, we want our apartments, we want our houses, we want our cars, we want our Gucci jeans and what have you.

“They got adjusted to it.

“But my opinion, after those seven years, is that most of the Chinese people I spoke to were not happy.

“Because after they got everything they wanted, they realised that money is not everything.

“They lack… that’s why there is so much growth in the numbers of believers in China, either Christian or Buddhist.

“So I feel sorry for these people and I think of them.

“You know, my idea is that China is not going to become a super power, or a power of the 21st century, under the government they have.

“But if they have a government which will allow their people to think, if they allow their people to think out of the box, to be open, and when they will be able to create, then China will become a superpower.

“But not under these circumstances.”