A foreign correspondent’s perspective
Last year, Richard Spencer covered the Olympics, visited Sichuan during the earthquake, entertained the prime minister of Great Britain, and explored Beijing with his three children and wife – not bad for someone who had always wanted to be a foreign correspondent.
Spencer, 43, the China correspondent for the London-based Daily Telegraph, moved to Beijing in 2003 and has lived in the midst of China’s recent dramatic transitions.
Until six years ago, the reporter’s path was a traditional one. After studying classical languages and philosophy at Oxford, then receiving a post graduate degree in journalism at University of Wales, College of Cardiff, Spencer worked his way up at local newspapers before joining the Telegraph. There, he worked at the news desk and later moved to the foreign desk as news editor.
“London can be a pretty tough place to bring up kids. Unless you have a mega-salary, it can be difficult,” says Spencer.
So when the post in China opened up in the midst of China’s second economic boom, Spencer, who always fancied living abroad, didn’t think twice about taking the job, and bringing along his three children – Joseph (15), Lily (13) and Yasmin (10) – and his wife, Helen Wing, a fiction writer.
Looking In from the Outside
As a foreign correspondent for a British paper, Spencer has had to rethink his previous conception of news since he began reporting from China. The British press has a strong preference for hard news – bombs, wars and elections – areas that aren’t specifically relevant to China coverage.
“The sort of stories that make headlines in the West are different. China is about economic development and subtle shifts in political influence, so for a journalist, you have to find good examples, make your own assessment of what’s going on here and find interesting ways to tell stories,” says Spencer.
Writing for the Telegraph’s website and his blog require a shorter style, which Spencer has also had to hone while in China.
“Here, you can end up writing a PhD thesis on social economic development, or
overemphasize the importance of the value of the exchange rate, while in the West, it’s not as important,” he adds.
Spencer particularly enjoys finding stories that represent what’s going on in China. “You can find a businessman who has made a lot of money anywhere, but here you can find someone who was in a labor camp in the Cultural Revolution who is now a millionaire, and suddenly the story becomes interesting.”
Reporting to the Western world about what’s going on in China comes with both extra responsibility and a need for additional sensitivity. “In other Western countries, like France, it doesn’t really matter how the UK is reporting on them, because it’s a democracy and their own newspapers are influential,” says Spencer. “But in China, we’re a stronger external force and we view the country in a completely different way than the local media.” Spencer acknowledges that foreign journalists regularly battle authorities that claim that Western media criticize China too often.
In contrast to Great Britain, where government has become more remote from its citizens, politics in China has more substantial effects on ordinary lives here, according to Spencer.
“In the West, we tend to live quite bland lives. Disaster is mundane – car crashes and murders and illness – and that’s terrible, but it’s inevitable. Then you come to China and people have led these extraordinary lives. Real normal people walking down the street of my parent’s generation or younger have had these incredible swings of disparity from poverty to wealth and torture,” the journalist says.
As an example, he relates the story of the Sun family, who owned a pastry shop in Qianmen that served emperors in the Forbidden City. During the 1950s, Mr. Sun lost the shop when he was imprisoned. After finally being released 25 years later, he managed to reclaim ownership of the establishment in 1987. Then his fortunes changed again. The bakery was targeted for demolition as part of the pre-Olympics redevelopment of Qianmen. It was Sun’s “nail house” efforts – refusing to make way for development – that caught Spencer’s attention. Eventually, the building was torn down after the Olympics, after the Sun family received sufficient compensation.
Balancing Press and Parenting
After moving to Beijing, Spencer’s children enrolled at Yew Chung International, a school with a British curriculum, which made the transition to a new country easier. “Kids are very adaptable, which is a cliché, but very true,” says Spencer. Joseph, Lily and Yasmin all attend Harrow now.
Because of the time difference between
Beijing and the Telegraph’s news desk in London, Spencer’s schedule is fairly flexible. He can drive his kids to school if they miss the bus, work from home to take care of a sick child, or attend a parent-teacher meeting in the evening – and still make deadlines later in the night.
Until last year, Spencer and his family lived in a Chinese hutong, but after being evicted before the Olympics, they moved into a
foreign diplomatic compound. Although Spencer admits his family can get caught in the expat bubble, they are always challenged by the nature of his job.
“The kids see something about China on the news, and it’s not just something that’s happening – it’s where Dad was that day,” said Spencer. “I was in that press conference, I went to that area of Sichuan during the earthquake.” He does acknowledge, however, that in typical kid fashion, his kids seem totally uninterested in what their father is doing, but he believes that on a subconscious level for the kids, his profession makes living in China more real to them.
From East to Middle East
After five years, Spencer’s time in Beijing is up; this month he heads to a new post in the Middle East. He’ll be opening a bureau for the Daily Telegraph in Dubai, an area of increasing importance.
“We’re all very sad to leave,” says Spencer. “The kids are very settled in.”
Reporting from China for the past five years has influenced Spencer’s ideas about how history and politics interweave.
“When you hear your dad or your grandparents talking about old uncle Toby who lived at the farm, it’s no interest at all,” he says. “But being here has made me reconsider how my own family’s situation changed during the 20th century.”
“When my dad talks about his grandfather’s life, you see his life being played out in the countryside in China now,” says Spencer, whose parents were the first in their families to go to university. “These stories are a part of your consciousness that you never really think about, and suddenly you come here and see this huge social change. You think it’s never happened; well, it’s happened to everyone. How did you get to be where you are? This story is actually your story.”