In The Beijing Bureau, 25 Australian correspondents write about reporting China's rise

Beijing's central business district. Picture: Shutterstock
Beijing's central business district. Picture: Shutterstock
  • The Beijing Bureau: 25 Australian Correspondents Reporting China's Rise. Edited by Trevor Watson and Melissa Roberts. Hardie Grant, $32.99.

Trevor Watson and Melissa Roberts emphasise one obvious, but obviously critical, point in introducing this anthology. They insist that it has "never been more important" to have Australian correspondents based in China, reporting on China's rise "through a prism of Australian priorities, standards and values".

The editors then give 25 Australian journalists previously based in China the chance to speak for themselves. Their coverage ranges in time from 1973 to 2020, from establishment of the first Beijing bureau to expulsion of two Australian journalists last year. In space, the range is also extensive, with the journalists criss-crossing China and escaping from the confines of Beijing alone. One set up a bureau in a bustling industrial city, Shenzhen, which was merely "a sleepy fishing village of a few hundred people" when the first correspondent passed through. Nine of those 25 are women, some spoke Chinese well, few actually broke scoops, all seemed to regard the posting as a remarkable, formative experience.

In retrospect at least, the commentators are not beset by the fond illusions entertained by some other Australians. This volume contains no talk about panda hugging. Strict restrictions on daily work - curtailed movement, propaganda, censorship, threats of expulsion, scoldings - all that must have disabused anyone who thought China was liberal or relaxed. Yvonne Preston speaks for more reporters than herself alone in noting that working in China sometimes comprised "a labour of desperation and despair".

In addition, the contributors do not appear to have subscribed to the delusion that economic reform in China would engender political progress. They do not bang on about China's interest in subscribing to a rules-based system not of its own making. Many of the journalists were too young to remember the even older illusion, that all Australians would live in clover if only every Chinese wore a pair of socks made from Australian merino wool.

The Beijing Bureau is therefore a most timely, relevant and useful book. Few journalists have taught us what we needed to learn about our neighbours; Sean Dorney's work in Papua New Guinea remains in a category of its own. Only a handful of accounts of the work of Australian journalists overseas have been published; the best may still be a novel, The Year of Living Dangerously, by Christopher Koch.

Before Hugh White, not many Australian analysts of China had gained international renown, the exception being the vindicated, clear-eyed sceptic, Pierre Ryckmans. Looking the other way, we might study more intently the evolution of Australian attitudes towards China.

Each of the 25 journalists must have asked themselves: what is really happening in China? And how does that matter to Australia? Evidently, the same focus would have been applied by our DFAT staff, members of the government and the business firms which built up trade with China.

Discerning motives and intentions was - and is - the key. Sending reporters to try to decipher China was a bold step for news media still convinced that Europe can be covered from a London bureau, or that Australian readers remain more intrigued by the machinations of British royalty rather than those of the Chinese Politburo.

Historically, the most valuable entry in this anthology may be Paul Raffaele's, where he describes the creation of the ABC's Beijing bureau in October 1973. He entered a world in which there were 7,000 bikes for every car in Beijing, where the elite were reputed to eat tiger shanks.

Following on from Raffaele, the contributors not only offer personal reminiscences but provide a potted history of modern China. Yvonne Preston recalls that "everything happened in 1976", with the deaths of Zhou and Mao, the purging of Deng, and the brief ascendancy of the nefarious Gang of Four.

She supplies an excellent summary of those developments, as does Warren Duncan. Similarly, the editors juxtapose two memoirs of the massacre at Tienanmen Square 13 years later, in June 1989.

On we go, as Chinese history becomes more linear and predictable after the upheavals of civil war, famine, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, lethal factional struggles, earthquakes and do the development of the most powerful economic engine the world has ever seen. Episodes of drama occur, especially in Angus Watson's evocation of the "all-you-can-eat teargas buffet" installed during demonstrations in Hong Kong.

Throughout, the story remains compelling, in the sense of troubling, absorbing, saddening and worrying. When we start talking about China, we suck the oxygen out of any room.

We need reporters back to help inform that unending conversation.

This story The unending China conversation first appeared on The Canberra Times.