Rob Schmitz

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

Prior to covering Europe, Schmitz provided award-winning coverage of China for a decade, reporting on the country's economic rise and increasing global influence. His reporting on China's impact beyond its borders took him to countries such as Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand. Inside China, he's interviewed elderly revolutionaries, young rappers, and live-streaming celebrity farmers who make up the diverse tapestry of one of the most fascinating countries on the planet. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road (Crown/Random House 2016), a profile of individuals who live, work, and dream along a single street that runs through the heart of China's largest city. The book won several awards and has been translated into half a dozen languages. In 2018, China's government banned the Chinese version of the book after its fifth printing. The following year it was selected as a finalist for the Ryszard Kapuściński Award, Poland's most prestigious literary prize.

Schmitz has won numerous awards for his reporting on China, including two national Edward R. Murrow Awards and an Education Writers Association Award. His work was also a finalist for the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award. His reporting in Japan — from the hardest-hit areas near the failing Fukushima nuclear power plant following the earthquake and tsunami — was included in the publication 100 Great Stories, celebrating the centennial of Columbia University's Journalism School. In 2012, Schmitz exposed the fabrications in Mike Daisey's account of Apple's supply chain on This American Life. His report was featured in the show's "Retraction" episode. In 2011, New York's Rubin Museum of Art screened a documentary Schmitz shot in Tibetan regions of China about one of the last living Tibetans who had memorized "Gesar of Ling," an epic poem that tells of Tibet's ancient past.

From 2010 to 2016, Schmitz was the China correspondent for American Public Media's Marketplace. He's also worked as a reporter for NPR Member stations KQED, KPCC and MPR. Prior to his radio career, Schmitz lived and worked in China — first as a teacher for the Peace Corps in the 1990s, and later as a freelance print and video journalist. He also lived in Spain for two years. He speaks Mandarin and Spanish. He has a bachelor's degree in Spanish literature from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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It was March 2007, China's legislature was wrapping up its annual session and Premier Wen Jiabao was about to speak at the closing press conference. The economy was seeing double-digit growth, a consumer class was rising and Beijing was soon hosting its first Olympics — there was every reason for a savvy politician to boast.

But that's not what the Chinese premier did.

"There are structural problems," Wen said ominously into a microphone, "which are causing unsteady, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable development."

In what will go down as one of the most significant legislative sessions in modern Chinese history, an eye-rolling millennial managed to steal the show from President Xi Jinping, a man who had just been given permission to rule 1.3 billion people for as long as he wants.

When it comes down to it, language is the heart of rap. That's why rappers in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, insist their city is the heart of Chinese rap. The language of Chengdu, Sichuanese, is an emotive, drawling dialect of Mandarin — so wildly different from its rigid-sounding mother tongue that visitors from other parts of China have a hard time understanding it. Its twang fits the rhythms of a song like "Leshan Doufu," by rapper TSP, like a glove.

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A lot of questions spring to mind on arriving at the construction site for a full-scale Chinese replica of the Titanic:

Why is this being built in the remote countryside, 1,000 miles from the sea?

Why is this being built?

And simply: Why?

The infomercial the developer screens for visitors at the site in the town of Daying, Sichuan Province, leaves these questions unanswered.

It's early afternoon, and the roosters of Three Stones Village are clucking themselves into a frenzy. They're responding to the antics of farmer Liu Jin Yin, who darts this way and that between bamboo groves, rice paddies and livestock, carrying a tripod that holds his iPhone.

The barefoot 26-year-old climbs a tree and descends with a handful of flowers. He leans into his phone to explain.

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After a year of missile launches, a nuclear test and name-calling with President Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is starting 2018 with yet another threat to the U.S.

SUPREME LEADER KIM JONG UN: (Speaking Korean).

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The last time China pressured Hong Kong to scrap its curriculum in favor of one developed by China's Communist Party-led government, tens of thousands marched through the city chanting, "Down with national education!"

Thundering chants of "We are Hong Kong" from thousands of red-shirted fans reverberate through the city's stadium, tucked into the lush mountains and jagged skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong's soccer team is playing against Lebanon, and the cheers die down for the opening stanza of the Lebanese national anthem.

The polite applause for the opposing team takes a turn, though, when the national anthem of China – technically Hong Kong's anthem, too – begins.

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A search for three missing sailors in the Pacific Ocean is over. The U.S. Navy says it's done its best to find survivors of Wednesday's plane crash off the coast of Japan. Eight of the sailors onboard were rescued. Here's what Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said that day.

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The United States Navy says it's done what it can. The Navy ended a search for three sailors aboard a cargo plane that crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Japan.

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A U.S. Navy transporter plane carrying 11 people crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Japan. Eight survivors have been rescued, and the search for the other three is ongoing. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us from Shanghai with more on this. Hi, Rob.

Engaging the Chinese on North Korea and trade were President Trump's two priorities this week in Beijing — and engage he did, but Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave little indication he was ready to budge any further on either issue.

Soft lounge music pipes through the speakers as elegantly dressed shoppers peruse organic produce and meats at City'super, one of Shanghai's most upscale markets, a cross between Whole Foods and Louis Vuitton. But one look at the price of an American steak is enough to conjure a mental scratch of a needle across this soothing soundtrack: Nearly $60 for a pound of USDA Prime ribeye.

In August 2012, Chinese politician Xi Jinping suddenly disappeared for three weeks. China's 18th Party Congress was weeks away, an event where Xi would be anointed as China's next leader.

To this day, nobody but key members of China's top leadership knows why.

"One story that's popular among the 'chatterati' of Beijing is that there was a lot of concern about the Bo Xilai situation and what it meant for the party," says Arthur Kroeber, managing director of Gavekal Dragonomics.

At the end of every summer, scientist Li Zhongqin takes his seasonal hike near the top of a glacier in the Tianshan mountains in China's far northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Li scrambles over a frozen ridge and heads toward a lone pole wedged in the ice. Clouds emerge from a peak above and quickly blow past. He stops to catch his breath. He is at 14,000 feet. The snow is thick. The air is thin.

"This is called a sight rod," he says, grasping the pole. "We come up here each month to check it, to see how fast the glacier's melting. Each year, the glacier is 15 feet thinner."

The bare, plaster walls of Yu Zu'en's new government-issued apartment are adorned with three decorations: an old photo from his years as a soldier, a shelf for his harmonica, and a poster featuring the busts of every Chinese Communist Party secretary since Chairman Mao. He points to the newest one and smiles.

"I wouldn't be here without Xi Jinping," he says. "Under his wise leadership, we're now taken care of. Before, we barely survived. Our village was up in the mountains. Corn didn't grow well, no roads. Then the leaders mobilized us and the entire village moved here."

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in September, Liang Xiaojun received a knock on the door. "There were 15 of them: national security police, regular police, justice bureau folks," he remembers.

Liang is a human rights lawyer in Beijing, an endangered species since 2015, when China's government questioned or detained more than 200 of his colleagues. Now he wonders if they're coming for him.

"They told me this was just a preliminary check. Next week, they'll send more police. It's possible they'll arrest me, but I mustn't live in fear."

Speaking to a foreign journalist is usually a stressful endeavor for a Uighur in China. Uighurs belong to a Muslim ethnic minority and speak a language closer to Turkish than Chinese. These differences from China's dominant ethnicity, the Han, have been at the root of a tense and sometimes violent relationship between Uighurs and China's government.

But there's another difference many Uighurs possess that the rest of China is attracted to: their appearance.

At the Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar in the heart of Urumqi, everything is bought and sold from tiny stalls blasting local music, in a square filled with Islamic architecture. It's a place that feels more like Central Asia than China.

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The first words of the hit song "Go!AMIGO" are sung in three languages: English, Spanish and Chinese. Its music video shows the three teenage members of TFBoys – China's hottest boy band – gathering friends for a game of baseball.

It all seems pretty innocent. But there are calculated reasons behind the song's linguistic flair, the video's focus on baseball and even the band itself: "This video is proof that Communist Party propaganda is evolving," says cultural critic Zhu Dake, who teaches at Shanghai's Tongji University.

Thirty miles off the shore of Port Douglas, Australia, tourists jump into the water of the outer reef. On their dive, they see giant clams, sea turtles and a rainbow of tropical fish, all swimming above brightly colored coral.

On a boat, marine biologist Lorna Howlett quizzes the tourists in the sunshine. "How many people out there saw a coral highlighter-yellow?" she asks, eliciting a show of hands. "What about highlighter-blue? Yeah? Anyone see some hot pinks?"

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We're going to turn to Hong Kong now, which is marking the 20th anniversary of Great Britain's handover of the city to China. China's government celebrated the event with a massive fireworks display...

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS)

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Today marks the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China. China's Xi Jinping celebrated with a visit to the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Speaking Chinese).

Each morning, a white-shirted army of bankers fills the crosswalks of Hong Kong, stopping and starting in unison to the ubiquitous chirping of the city's crosswalk signals, a sound eerily reminiscent of a Las Vegas slot machine room. Twenty years ago, the traders and account managers crossing these streets were mostly expatriates and local Hong Kongers, and when they arrived to the office, much of their business was done in English.

In a city as packed as Hong Kong, what's private elsewhere becomes public — like conversations about politics. In the shade of a tree, a middle-aged man in a park tells me he likes China's government and he's not worried about its impact on his city.

Old women sitting on a nearby bench overhear him and shake their heads in unison until one of them stands up.

"Tell the truth!" one of the women yells.

She and the man exchange a few choice words and then he gets up and storms off to find another bench.

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