Marco Polo in the New Era

  Editor's Note  


On the evening of March 31st, 2022, Peking University's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center was lit by the bubbly presence of two distinguished American guests—Erik R. Nilsson, and Mark Levine, both recipients of the Chinese Government's Friendship Award, the highest award to commend foreign experts who have made outstanding contributions to China's modernization drive.

Titled "Marco Polo in the New Era", this event is jointly hosted by PKU School of Journalism and Communication, PKU China Center for Edgar Snow Studies, PKU Office of Global Communications, and China Daily Edgar Snow of the New Era Studio.

The lecture is also held as part of the course "Seminars by Renowned Journalists and Media Influencers" from the School of Journalism and Communication, organized by seminar host Prof. He Shu.

Every week, this course, open to the entire student body at PKU, invites influential media personnel to PKU to share their experiences and insights.

Prof. He Shu made the opening address, before inviting director of the PKU China Center for Edgar Snow Studies and director of PKU Center for Excellent Teaching and Learning Professor Sun Hua, who is an old friend of Erik R. Nilsson and Mark Levine, to introduce the guest speakers.

Professor Sun Hua introducing the guests

Guest Speaker Erik R. Nilsson

Following an introduction of the distinguished guests, the first speaker, Erik R Nilsson was invited to the stage to give his speech. Nilsson, recipient of the 2016 Chinese Government Friendship Award, is a China Daily senior journalist and a member of the Edgar Snow Newsroom, a project launched to explore China's story in greater detail. Nilsson commenced his speech in Chinese, first expressing his excitement to be at PKU, followed by humbly indicating that he would be using English for the rest of his speech. Next, he explained that the theme of his lecture, "A Global Nomad's Journey through China's Poverty Alleviation", is tied to his best-selling book, "Closer to Heaven", a book which distills his first-hand explorations of China's poverty solutions, disaster relief, and overall development over more than a decade. This book contains stories about China that he holds close to his heart, stories that he has gathered through his own lenses, and stories that he has been dedicated to conveying for the past 15 years.

Poverty alleviation is a subject that is nearest and dearest to my life and heart.

Nilsson on his journey across China

Nilsson recounts that at the age of 18, the 9.11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center occurred. Since then, he has yearned to become a conflict reporter. This dream of his was realized in 2006, after he completed an internship and received an offer from China Daily. Ever since, Nilsson has been to every province on the Chinese mainland, reporting on poverty alleviation, disaster assistance, and government policies. Nilsson has covered important events in China, including the Olympics, China's Two Sessions, and Belt and Road Forums, but what captivated him the most was observing first-hand how the government's policies were actually improving people's lives.

Subsequently, Nilsson talked about his experiences as a first-hand witness to China's poverty alleviation. He discussed the transformations of poverty-stricken areas, how resource-limited schools have undergone dramatic changes in recent years, how children from poor countries have grown up to be specialized in fields such as farming and construction, and how farmers, were merging with cutting-edge technologies such as live streams to sell their harvest, therefore increasing their income by twofold.

Nilsson reporting China’s poverty alleviation efforts

To further document what he had seen, in 2017, Nilsson began scriptwriting and hosting videos. Videos such as the belt and road series he did with his daughter have received a lot of attention. With media across the globe covering his stories, his videos have received more than half a billion views in total. His book, "Closer to Heaven: A Global Nomad’s Journey Through China's Poverty Alleviation", became a trending topic on social media platforms, with netizens comparing "Closer to Heaven" to "Red Star over China", and affectionately dubbing Nilsson the "Edgar Snow of today". Indeed, they are both American journalists who travelled to parts of China where few or no foreigners had gone, on a quest to tell the world about the true stories of China's development. However, Nilsson claims that there are notable differences between them two because Snow reported China during a period of social upheaval, whereas he is fortunate enough to cover the fruits of China's development during a period of prosperity.

Mark Levine

The second speaker of the lecture, Mark Levine, is a singer, songwriter, and author, as well as a recipient of the 2014 Chinese Government Friendship Award and the 2011-2013 Great Wall Friendship Award.

"Out upon the Jiangsu Plain lies the city of Huai'an, It's the place I'm proud to call my home…" Levin's speech, titled "Singing my Chinese Stories to the World," was intertwined with performances of songs he had composed during his years in China. He sang heartily while strumming his guitar which was strapped onto his shoulders. "I've played the guitar since I was 9 years old", he told the audience.

Levine graduated with a Ph.D. in sociology. For 30 years, he was a full-time volunteer for underprivileged workers in America, devoting his time to studying and figuring out how to provide food and medical care to those in need. During this time, Levine heard about China and was determined to see China for himself. In 2015, Levine came to China to aid in the national English education campaign. His first two years in China were in the central Jiangsu Province city of Huai'an, where he taught at Huaiyin Teachers College as well as two middle schools. "It is the hometown of the first premier of the People's Republic of China, Zhou Enlai," Levine said affectionately when describing the city of Huai'an.

Levine featured in International Talent magazine

When his teaching contract was up, Levine didn't want to leave Huai'an, but because foreign teachers had to be rotated after two-year contracts, he had no choice but to apply for jobs elsewhere in China. His feelings towards Huai'an inspired him to pick up his guitar and write songs about his experiences and memories in this city, and thus his song "Huai'an ——Promise of the Future" was composed. He performed this song at the Huai'an Foreign Affairs Office, and many festivals in Huai'an, touching the hearts of many.

Since then, he has continued to write music, writing nearly 75 songs about his life and experiences in China. He calls these his "Musical Stories from a Life in China," which he shares with the world through television and stage performances. To Levine, there is no better way to tell stories about China than to combine his passion for music and love for writing. Some of his songs have even been performed in languages other than English, such as French, German, Japanese, and Russia, so that more people can hear his stories of China.

Levine exploring China

Following the guest speaker's speech, Wu Zhipan, former executive president of PKU and Tang Jinnan, party secretary of PKU School of Journalism and Communication, gave speeches extending their gratitude towards the two American friends for being here to share their experiences and stories with the students and faculty of PKU. Edgar Snow was once a lecturer at the Department of Journalism at Yenching University, teaching courses to students on feature writing. Thus, it is with pride that PKU can still carry on the tradition of inviting foreign experts to come to PKU to share knowledge with students from different perspectives. "We need Marco Polos of the new era," says Party Secretary Tang Jinnan.

Group photo with the students

This event was hailed as a success, as it ended on a joyous note with Professor Wu Zhipan and Tang Jinnan presenting PKU customized gifts to the guest speakers.

Wu Zhipan(L1), Erik R. Nilsson ( L2), Mark Levine (R2) and Tang Jinnan( R1)

Following that, students broke into a Happy Birthday Song to celebrate Nilsson's birthday, which coincided with the day of the lecture. On behalf of the audience, a student representative presented Nilsson with a bouquet of flowers, expressing their honour and gladness at being able to share this special day with him.

Levine signing his autograph in his book

Prof. He Shu rounded up the event, expressing special thanks to China Daily for their continuous support for the course "Seminars by Renowned Journalists and Media Influencers."

Subsequently, she highlighted the importance of reading newspapers to keep up to date with current affairs and understanding China's policies, in order to be able to convey to the world accurate and real stories of China. Speakers of the lecture, Nilsson and Levine, as first-hand witnesses of China's development, have been committed to acting as a bridge to foster mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world, serving as an invaluable source of inspiration for youths in the global era. Students at the lecture also exhibited their efforts in global communication; they came prepared with questions, and expressed their warmest welcome to the guest speakers through enthusiastic interactions and lively exchanges.

Student raising questions during Q&A session

PKU has long been a driving force in China's global communication, and has always encouraged students and faculty to be a part of global communication efforts and initiatives. Therefore, "Seminars by Renowned Journalists and Media Influencers" will continue to play a role in PKU's global communication efforts, bringing in notable guest speakers each class to provide students with news perspectives and insights into international journalism.

Group photo