So You Want to Cover China…

By Covering Business     April 19, 2013

By Minsi Chung
Columbia Journalism School, C’13

For business reporters interested in emerging markets, there may be no more compelling assignment than China. The nation’s meteoric GDP growth has helped create a burgeoning middle class. Accusations of currency manipulation often put the government at odds with the United States. Poor labor conditions have prompted international protests. China is interesting. Journalists want in.

Any new beat comes with its own quirks and demands, and there is always a learning curve, but covering China presents some unique challenges. The government can be opaque. The language barrier can be steep.

Bloomberg News reporters Michael Forsythe, who has spent a total of eight years reporting on-and-off from Beijing, and Henry Sanderson, who has spent the last three years there, have covered a wide variety of business stories in China. In January, Bloomberg Press published their book on China Development Bank, the financial juggernaut that has helped fund the nation’s acquisition of huge amounts of debt overseas. The two spoke about their experiences at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism earlier this month.

Here are a few tips they had to offer journalists weighing a move to China.

Brace for a cold shoulder

One of the main differences between reporting in China and a country like the United States is access to information, particularly from companies.

When Mr. Sanderson was reporting on CDB, the bank had no clue how to handle the foreign press, he said. There was no public relations department. And email? “They will ask you to fax questions to which you receive no response.”

Mr. Forsythe said Chinese companies are “not as open with information” as those in the U.S. and that suspicions about foreign reporters remain high. Interviews are often hard to get, and the Chinese generally don’t respond to phone calls. His advice: Ambush them. “You just have to go and show up,” he said. “It’s a total gamble.”

Leverage online databases

There is a surprising amount of financial and economic data available to reporters who know where to look.

“You can get a lot of information about the economy, even about people, by looking at all these documents online,” Mr. Forsythe said, referring to a collection of bond prospectus data he used in a PowerPoint presentation. It’s all about collating data on your own and seeing where it leads you.

Master the language early

Fluency in Chinese is necessary to be a good business reporter in Beijing. Nearly all reading material is in Chinese, and the vast majority of interviews are conducted in Mandarin.

Mr. Sanderson says he got a lot of information from books, which were all in Chinese.

Mr. Forsythe spent four years studying Mandarin in the U.S. before his first sting in Beijing, but he says he wished he had spent more time studying the language before heading over. Only after an additional two-month intensive program in China did he consider himself fluent. “You just have to invest the time,” he says.


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