Foreign correspondents in China spend years digging into the detail of the country and the information they uncover and the conclusions they reach are communicated to the world in real-time and then disappear into the archives, never to be seen again. Surprisingly few write books which sum up their experiences, but there is a new exception from Australian journalist Jane Hutcheon.
Her book, From Rice to Riches, relates stories from her years as a correspondent in Beijing for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (1995-2001), enriched with stories of her own family which is entwined with China's history in ways which add significant depth to her reporting. Both her mother and father were born in Shanghai in the days before the Communist takeover, and her father, Robin Hutcheon, went on to become the editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, where Jane grew up.
The book is not at all written in the dry style of reportage which many journalists resort to when they dump their notes into a book. It is chatty, touchy-feely and human. There are stories and characters which put flesh on China's dramatic process of change. Being a TV journalist in China is really tough, what with all the camera equipment and the need to get people to stay things on screen. But Hutcheon clearly managed it through a combination of gentle empathy for her subjects and persistent inquisitiveness.
From Rice to Riches is reporting with a conscience. She sees the environmental degradation, the lack of legal protection for individuals and the secrecy which envelops so much of China's official world and she takes a position on it. And she is witheringly critical of foreign observers who decline to do so as well:
"Foreigners are responsible for the other kind of secrecy I dislike. The conspiracy of silence isn't limited to businesses, but extends to governments and individuals who self-censor in order to avoid displeasing the Chinese government. Foreign governments fear being left out of the vast China market, and the fear is repeated down the chain so that nobody is prepared to tell it like it is."
But she is ultimately optimistic about China and its prospects. China has become richer. In spite of all its problems, it is not about to collapse. She feels in the China of today the same vibrancy that she remembers from the Hong Kong of her childhood:
"As a child, I felt I lived in the center of the earth, a place where I could take a ferry ride across the breathtaking harbor and lose myself in a city of a million lights, where everything and everyone seemed to have energy and purpose. I came to have the same feeling in China. After work, I could step out into a world where migrant workers mingled with millionaires and where energy and industry gave off a constant murmur, like a giant engine." From Rice to Riches (ISBN 0 7329 1172 9) by Jane Hutcheon is published by Pan MacMillan Australia and is priced at US$22. It is also available in paperback at airports and bookshops in the Asian Region.