Book Review: “The Beijing Bureau” by Trever Watson and Melissa Roberts (eds.) (@HardieGrant @EasternRegional)

The Beijing Bureau: 25 Australian correspondents reporting China’s rise (Hardie Grant Publishing, 2021) by Trevor Watson and Melissa Roberts (eds.)

China is arguably the biggest story of the 21st century. Presently Australia’s biggest trading partner, everything it does seems to have considerable impact on us. Managing our relations with China is as pivotal a task for our government as accommodating our biggest ally, the United States.

As suggested by Trevor Watson and Melissa Roberts, editors of The Beijing Bureau: 25 Australian correspondents reporting China’s rise (2021), if Australia is to get China right, then we “must have an understanding of China delivered by journalists able to view the Middle Kingdom through a prism of Australian priorities, standards and values – and from an Australian perspective”.

With Australia now being the only major power in the world not to have journalists on the ground in China, it may seem difficult to comprehend the mindset of our powerful and complicated northern neighbour. However, it does not and should not stop us from wanting to know more, about what happened, is happening and will happen in that country.

The Beijing Bureau arrives at a good time as Australia struggles to walk a fine line between America as a superpower and its formidable Chinese counterpart. The journalists collected in this book offer valuable insights into the making of China from the 1970s up to the present day.

These journalists share their hard-won knowledge of China and bittersweet stories of life as a correspondent. Among them are household names such as Chris Buckley, Helene Chung, Stan Grant, Jane Hutcheon, Hamish McDonald, Stephen McDonell, Uli Schmetzer and Mark Smith, just to name a few. It’s exciting to read the first Australian journalists in China in 1973, soon after the Whitlam Government shifted its formal recognition from Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists in Taiwan to Mao Zedong’s communist regime as the legitimate government of all of China.

While a section of the book is dedicated to coverage of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, there’s also in-depth and detailed analysis of the treatment of Uyghurs of Xinjiang and the legacy of democracy movement in Hong Kong. Equally informative is Part Four, where eight journalists from renowned Australian and international news organisations explain how China managed to alleviate millions from poverty while rising as a global economic powerhouse in merely two decades.

In the words of Ali Moore: “In the early 1990s there was a clear, if unspoken, pact with the people: to get rich is glorious, as long as it’s accompanied by unquestioning loyalty to the Party.” That, and Richard McGregor’s quote – “The Party is like God. He is everywhere. You just can’t see him” – shed ample light on how Beijing maintains control of the hearts and minds of nearly 1.4 billion people.

The Beijing Bureau is an essential and engaging read for all who care about Australia-China relations. Not only because it chronicles the history of Australian journalism in China, but it also enhances our understanding of that country, the lives of its people, its government and culture, and what its ambition means to Australia and the world.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “Oz eyes on China” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, September 7, 2021, P.12.

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