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Obituary - Benjamin Kang Lim, towering figure in Chinese journalism

Benjamin Kang Lim, a Philippine-born China expert and ace correspondent, whose reporting ensured Reuters' reputation as the premier news source in China for many years, died on May 21 in Beijing of pancreatitis. He was 65.

Lim was an extraordinary journalist and a towering figure in reporting China, a veritable scoop machine. But he retained a self-effacing modesty throughout his career.

During his 27 years at Reuters, during which he was bureau chief in both Taipei and Beijing, he twice won both “Scoop of the Year” and “Reporter of the Year.”

Among his most important exclusives for Reuters was being first to report the death of China’s leader Deng Xiaoping in 1997. It was a snap he had prepared for many years.

His secret power was his sources. To be first, he identified several people who he thought would have knowledge before an official announcement, and arranged with each of them to send him a code via pager by which he would recognise both the source and the news. Having received the code from two sources, he left the office for a pay phone that could not be traced and called the sources to confirm.  

He was utterly tireless and never off the job, meeting his vast network at all hours. He took his sources out for meals, but much more than that he remembered all their birthdays, and those of spouses and children. He sent messages on any important family occasions or turned up with a gift. His sources loved him and trusted him. One called him with a story, not realising that his mobile phone was bugged by the security services. Lim knew better and did not run the story to protect his friend. That caution probably saved the man from prison on charges of leaking state secrets. 

He foresaw, well before others and three weeks before his appointment to the Politburo Standing Committee, that Xi Jinping was set for supreme power in 2007. Lim correctly predicted the entire nine-man lineup that year of the new 17th Politburo Standing Committee, the dream exclusive of any reporter in China. He won Reuters Scoop of the Year for that report.  

Lim spent years regularly prowling around outside the courtyard home of disgraced Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, purged after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and cultivating his friends. He never met him but scooped the world on his death.

He became friends with many senior purged Party officials, and others still in power. The Foreign Ministry helped to arrange emergency medical care when he fell ill last week and issued a rare statement of condolence at his death.  

He was also the gentlest, most generous and modest of reporters. He often gave tips to colleagues and liked to share bylines - partly to obscure from the authorities his own role in exclusives.  

But he could be firm. When he had a scoop on the dismissal in 1995 of the powerful mayor of Beijing and Politburo member Chen Xitong, he banged his fist on the desk to underscore to the bureau chief that he was certain of the news.  

After leaving Reuters in 2018, Lim stayed in Beijing as Global Affairs Correspondent for Singapore’s The Straits Times. He wrote a book in 2016 titled “Taking China’s Pulse” in which he predicted, accurately, that Xi Jinping would remain in power for at least three terms, ending a long-held practice.  

Lim was born in Manila to immigrant parents from China’s southern Fujian province but left to study Chinese in Taipei at 19, driven in part by his love for Chinese martial arts films. He worked for the local English-language China Post, before moving to Agence France Press and joining Reuters in 1991. 

He leaves his wife and a daughter, Catherine.