The Beijing Bureau

Hardie Grant Books Rrp $32.99

This is a book of anecdotes by twenty-five Australian foreign correspondents posted to Beijing from 1973-2020. It is edited by Trevor Watson and Melissa Roberts both of whom served in Beijing from 1988-90.

The book is a fascinating account of life in China, from the time the capital was known as Peking to Beijing today. The accounts detail the problem of gaining information and reporting from a closed and secretive society, just prior to and during the Cultural Revolution, the gradual easing of restrictions and increase in China’s wealth, Deng and the awfulness of Tiananmen Square, to the rise of Xi Jinping and the recent closure of Australian bureaus.

What stands out is the strength of character of these Australian journalists posted to China and their ability in adapting to difficult living conditions and enterprise in overcoming petty restrictions and aggressive police, to obtain and file stories. Many were risk takers and their courage and enterprise paid off in the depth and quality of their reports.

I can empathise with their accounts. As an Australian diplomat posted to hardship posts I had a lot to do with foreign correspondents, Australian and others. In a hardship post our jobs were similar because of the difficulty in obtaining information. We helped each other and we traded facts and understandings.

Some of the accounts are personnel with correspondents tracing distant or lost family connections, others are hard edged and packed with information about China, the economy, human rights, culture and most importantly politics and people. They also provide fascinating insights into their profession, their problem solving and their person. 

All make a unique contribution to the book. Some were house hold names and just seeing their name in print brought back memories for me. Good memories. Trevor Watson, Kate Wall, Richard McGregor, Yvonne Preston, Hamish McDonald, Paul Raffaele and the wonderfully scruffy Stephen McDonell.

The stories of the contributing journalists to this book made me proud to be an Australian. All of them have served their public and Australia well. Such talent. 

Melissa Roberts has two pieces at the end of the book on George Morrison and George Johnston, both excellent.

With the declining state of the Main Stream Media one wonders where to from here? Do these journalists and foreign correspondents represent the end of an era? I hope not. Sue-Lin Wong is still working out of Hong Kong, good luck to her. There are very few Australian foreign correspondents now working in the region.

I thoroughly recommend this book. I could not put it down.

Bruce Haigh is a retired Diplomat and political commentator.

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