Crossing Borders

What are the key issues facing foreign journalists working in China? Two UTS alumni – Fairfax Media’s acting China correspondent Philip Wen and the ABC’s China correspondent Stephen McDonell – open up on life inside the communist country.

Philip Wen

Philip WenMy stint as China correspondent began at the start of the year, when I was posted to Beijing to cover for our regular correspondent, who had taken a sabbatical. It was 1 January when I entered China – I had left Australia directly from a New Year’s Eve party at a mate’s house.

Landing in Beijing, there was no time to think about what I had got myself into. It was a case of hitting the ground running, and making the most of the experience.

As a journalist, it probably doesn’t get any better than being a China correspondent. It is the place to be for news; the country is moving along at such a pace that good yarns are everywhere you look. And with China becoming an increasingly influential power in the world, those stories are also having more impact.

Being a foreign correspondent is very much a full-time gig. I quickly learnt to measure the time off I had to relax in hours rather than days, and to get as much sleep as possible when I could get it.

It helps that the job itself presents such magnificent experiences that even though you’re working hard, it’s quite easy to enjoy yourself while you’re at it.

Beijing and Shanghai, and even the likes of Guangzhou and Chengdu, are true international cities in their own right these days, but for me the highlights have been the opportunity to work on stories in more far-flung places like the Tibetan areas of Sichuan, and some of the poorer areas of Yunnan province. They were long trips that were physically tough, but ultimately rewarding for the great people we met and the spectacular scenery along the way.

It is no secret there are challenges that foreign journalists face when reporting in China. It is a country that is still grappling with the importance of press freedom.

There have been some massive stories out of China recently that have garnered international attention. Other foreign correspondents tell me this is by far the busiest time they’ve seen, probably since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The ruling Communist Party is in a real state of flux after the sensational scandal involving the ousting of senior politician Bo Xilai – once seen as a sure bet for promotion to the party’s inner circle.

It has been a real eye-opener into the inner workings of the party, including the cut-throat, high-stakes hunger for power and the corruption and violence that can often come with it.

Most importantly, it has shown that there has been a lot more factional infighting and instability within the party than people had previously thought.

Closer to home, Matthew Ng and Charlotte Chou have both been sentenced to lengthy stints in jail in Guangzhou in very murky circumstances, and continued coverage of their plight is important.

As our trade and investment ties with China continue to increase, it is important that we develop an understanding of them

Stephen McDonell

Stephen McDonellChina is a story machine. It doesn’t know how to do anything but make news.

This is a place with: military expansion; construction; corruption; three-wheeled motorised delivery bicycles passing glittering skyscrapers; a massive population that seems at times breathtakingly ignorant, at times blindly nationalistic and at times exploding onto the internet with newfound possibilities of expression; the most disgusting polluted rivers you could possibly imagine and the most enormous wind farms rolling across the hills; a generation of people whose lives are dramatically better than their parents and grandparents; people who are gaoled for advocating democratic reforms and where 95 per cent of the population have no idea whatsoever that this is happening.

This country is the future and Australia is well and truly locked into it. The good news for Australians is that we are well-regarded in China by taxi drivers and CEOs alike.

When we, as Australian reporters, deal with Chinese officials they do view us differently to Americans and Europeans. Let’s face it, they want our iron ore, gas, coal and uranium.

However, there is also an acknowledgement that most Australians view this country differently to the way most Western Europeans and North Americans do. It sounds like I am pumping Australians up but I reckon the ‘average’ informed person in Sydney has an understanding of China which incorporates more of its complexities than does say the average informed Londoner or New Yorker.

The potential downside in this is that, because many Australian diplomats, politicians and businesspeople know that significant human rights abuses only touch a relatively small proportion of Chinese people, they can tend to down play them and even discourage each other from raising these issues with Chinese officials or, heaven forbid, mentioning these matters publicly.

As a reporter with a massive and complex beat, I am trying to convey something of all the important facets of the Chinese experience. Because there are so many elements to modern China, at this point in history there is no way that I am doing any of them justice: I simply can’t. If I was to cover the economy here in the detail it really warrants, I’d be doing nothing about the enormous earthchanging environmental crisis in China.

If I was to cover the environment in the detail it warrants, I’d be doing nothing on the biggest political crisis China has experienced in two decades and so on. On this last point, people should not underestimate the significance of the Bo Xilai story. Sure, it’s a sexy yarn involving murder, intrigue and betrayal but it also represents an open clash of ideology within the upper ranks of the Communist Party.

In short, Bo Xilai represented a renewal of a type of neo-Maoism here. When he went down, he took the hopes of a big slab of the Party with him.

The sad thing for the followers of his so-called ‘Chongqing Model’ – named after the huge city he ran – is that he did have considerable success in lifting up the poor in the underprivileged west of the country while at the same time courting the business community there.

Like many a leader before him, though, his ambition, which o’erleapt itself, led him to trample on those who got in his way: lawyers who had the gall to represent crime bosses, were framed and thrown into gaol.

You never feel like you know enough about this place – or that you ever could. Of course, that’s also the enduring appeal of it for a reporter: the harder it is to find out what’s really going on, the more intriguing it becomes.

I can’t imagine ever being over it.