Tales from Peking
Wednesday 15 September 2021
It is very gracious of Michael Sheridan, a highly respected Asian correspondent himself, to acknowledge the input of Reuters correspondents for his new book on China and Hong Kong - and very perceptive to consult some of the very best [The Reuters legacy in Hong Kong and China].
The answer to his question, whether “the masters of Reuters had any real idea of the talent at their disposal down the decades?”, is not always.
But the high standard was set very early with David Chipp, the first Reuter correspondent to be based in then Peking in 1956, followed shortly afterwards by Adam Kellett-Long, whose experience of Eastern Europe made him well placed to report to the world the Sino-Soviet split of the 1950s/60s.
David “I stood on Mao’s toes” Chipp did not even file on that event (because he thought it would be regarded as a frivolous waste of extortionate cable rates). But somehow he got through - in the days of leaden Victorian prose - a piece which began “Marco Polo was never like this” on his journey from Hong Kong to Peking “taking with me into the unknown a vast amount of luggage, including a typewriter, office supplies, a radio and a record player”.
To those of us who succeeded Anthony Grey during the Cultural Revolution of 1967-76 it was still a voyage into the unknown, especially for Jonathan Sharp who was sent to cover the Ping-Pong Diplomacy of 1971.
It was many years after his release that Tony Grey found out about the efforts that had been made to get him released, or even discussion of his detention, by Reuters and the British authorities. He had only been in Peking for a few weeks (after a posting to East Germany) when the Red Guards stormed the Reuters house close to the Forbidden City, strangling the office cat before his eyes from a balcony and imprisoning him in a basement broom cupboard. He asked after a short while if he could have some of the books in the upstairs living room, left behind by previous correspondents, only to be told they would consider it if he could name them.
The office in Hong Kong was told at one point by Chinese officials (based in the Bank of China building) that we could send some books to Grey. I put together a package of six books for someone I had never met - they were sent but never delivered.
Every one of us assigned to China by Reuters has a lasting memory and tale to tell. I was an accidental, and short-lived, China hand. Recalled from a posting in South Africa without explanation, I was told on arrival in 85 Fleet Street that a visa to Peking had been obtained for me and I was to get there as soon as possible to be in place for the Nixon visit.
It was only a couple of months after James Pringle had reopened the bureau and the Chinese Mission in London had advised Reuters it was considering allowing another British news organisation to be based there. Wanting to keep its monopoly, Reuters said they would take it - sending me on an assignment with no budget, no resources and a few months in which I got around Peking on a bike borrowed from the Toronto Globe and Mail correspondent. One factor on my selection was - at that time - China would not give a visa to someone who could speak Chinese - something that Gerry Long squashed during an unpleasant visit (with Michael Nelson and Brian Horton) in October 1972.
For me, the lasting memory is that I met my wife, who - on the morning after our marriage in Hong Kong (with the reception at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club) abandoned me as she had to take the diplomatic bag back to the Swedish Embassy.
Shortly before I left Peking, a new correspondent arrived for The Times - someone with whom Reuters had really missed a trick, as it was David Bonavia. After joining Reuters, David - a Russian and Chinese speaker - was given his only Reuter posting to Zambia. A legend in Far East journalism, his memoirs of Russia and China are aptly called “Seeing Red”. ■
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