Andrew Browne, Reporting about Chinese Politics, Business, Foreign Affairs and Asia for Three Decades

Alayna Wood interviews veteran reporter Andrew Browne on his wide ranging career and gets advice for aspiring journalists.

Andrew Browne, right, served as an NBC Olympics correspondent with Mike Tirico, left, and Tsu Jing, middle, during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Andrew Browne has served as a reporter in Asia since the 1980s. As bureau chief of the Asia division for both Reuters and the Wall Street Journal, he has seen the modern evolution of Asia, and especially China, in the 20th century. In this interview, Browne describes his career throughout the last four decades, from his experience working on the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning international reporting series to reporting on the Opening Ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics mere feet away from Presidents Xi Jin Ping and Vladimir Putin. Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To start, Andrew, can you give me a summary of your background and education?

Andrew Browne: Sure. I’m British, but I grew up in Hong Kong. I then went on to study at Leeds University for a bachelor’s in Chinese Literature and History. And this was, at the time, the only university in Europe that offered courses in modern Chinese. We’re talking about the late 70s, and all of the others, like Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham focused on classical Chinese. This was right at the time when China was opening back up after the Cultural Revolution. But China wasn’t properly open, and nobody thought that they were going to use their Chinese to do anything productive. It was just a sort of, rich, fascinating course of study. And it was, of course, of personal interest to me because I grew up in Hong Kong looking, but never actually venturing, into China.

I knew all along that I wanted to be a journalist. It was the only thing that ever crossed my mind I would be. As soon as I graduated, I started writing at Leeds, making use of this wealth of magazines and other literature that was coming out of China, after the Cultural Revolution. I sat in the library of Leeds University cobbling together pieces from these sources, and, remarkably, getting published and used that as my calling card to get a proper job.

In the early ’80s, you basically started out freelancing, and just writing first and then getting published?

Browne: I basically would. At the time, there were very few foreign correspondents in China. So it wasn’t as though there was a huge amount of competition. I would just cobble together these pieces, and this was in the days of typewriters. I’d rip [my article] off the typewriter, stuff it into an envelope, send it off to the newspapers, and hope that it gets published in several days.

You have many major publications on your resume, including the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and Bloomberg. Can you give a summary of your career trajectory?

Browne: The first-ever piece that I got published was in The Guardian newspaper in London. And armed with these clips, I then got on a plane, flew to Hong Kong, trolled through the various newspaper and magazine offices, and very quickly landed a job at the South China Morning Post as a columnist. I did that for just a bit less than two years, then joined Reuters. At the time, Reuters was setting up a global editing hub in Hong Kong to edit news during the Asian day. They decided to move the London overnight desk out to Hong Kong. They were looking for a journalist who knew the region, could write, and was willing to travel. So I got hired at Reuters and spent 20 years there as bureau chief in Taipei, in the late 1980s. At that time, there was a wave of democratization around Asia, from South Korea to the Philippines, Taiwan, and Indonesia. I covered a lot of that process- of all these societies, economies, political systems opening up and liberalizing.

I then went from Taipei to mainland China. I spent a couple of years in Beijing and opened up the Reuters bureau in Shanghai. It had been closed after, or very shortly after, the revolution in ’49, and I got back there in the early ’90s. My task for Reuters was to cover the birth of the new markets that Deng Xiaoping had ordained after his so-called “southern tour”. I spent a few years in Korea, and then back in Beijing. I took charge of Reuters operations in Greater China (including mainland, Hong Kong, plus Taipei). Then I got sent to Singapore as a news editor.

I left Reuters after 20 years, joined the Wall Street Journal, and sort of did the same thing again for the Wall Street Journal. I became the editor for China, and this job was to fuse the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires into a single operation in China and develop Chinese language products. This does seem like ancient history- we then included a very active, thriving, well-read, well-received Chinese language website that wasn’t blocked.

Unfortunately, when Xi Jinping came in, all that got closed down. The decision that they forced us to make was that you could have editorial independence, if so, we’re going to close you down. If you agree to give us override of your news file, and everything that comes out of your bureaus in China, you can stay. We turned them down, so that website got closed down in the end. There were 120 people in our bureau in Shanghai, China, at the time, at its height, and now it’s down to a few.

Was that around 2017? When you left Shanghai?

Browne: Xi Jin Ping took power in 2012 -2013. We sort of staggered along for a couple of years. And then fell foul to the regime. Now, it’s a much scaled-back operation. I switched to writing columns instead. I had a column called China’s World, which was published regularly, once a week, often twice, sometimes three-four times a week, depending on news flow.

Andrew Browne reports on the plight of China’s poorest children in this Wall Street Journal report

That brings me to another question. Dealing with the censorship in China, I imagine, is pretty challenging as a journalist. What is it like to have to find ways to speak around or avoid saying things that can be perceived as criticism or anti-China? And how did you contend with that through your career there?

Browne: Well, I never thought about whether or not this is going to offend China. I mean, that really wasn’t part of the calculation. The Chinese couldn’t stop you from writing whatever you want to write. The restrictions come into the pre-writing stage. It included everything from, first of all, and most importantly, hiring. As a foreign news organization in China, you’re not allowed to recruit Chinese journalists. You recruit people that you then call ‘news assistants’ who have an ambiguous status because they’re doing a lot of work that journalists do, but can’t have bylines.

Over time, as the list of sensitive topics in China grew longer, you couldn’t assign so-called news assistants to anything sensitive. So that would include things like Taiwan, now Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and human rights. That being said, the foreign news bureau were, and are, still incredibly dependent on Chinese staff to set up interviews, do research, and check facts. Those (reporters) that don’t speak Chinese, so they travel around China with these assistants (so they can) provide context. They’re the primary sources all the time, they’re on social media. These bureaus are very reliant on them. Nevertheless, there is a rather serious layer of restrictions as, in any other country, foreign news bureaus and international news bureaus might have one or two international correspondents, and the rest will be local hires.

The second thing is the availability of people to talk to. Of course, you’re relatively free these days to travel around and talk to ordinary people. But if you want to have anything, an official interview, that’s a different story. And increasingly now, official means, all layers of government, party, increasingly, academia, and your sources that you want to interview, they’re the ones that will feel intimidated, they’re the ones that may not be as frank as they’d like to be. And frankly, your first thought is about protecting them all the time. And so that’s the restriction, in terms of access. If you look at the annual reports that the Foreign Correspondents Club of China and now Hong Kong have put out, you’ll discover all kinds of harassment and surveillance. They make it very difficult to cover the news to get to the grassroots of Chinese society, which is so counterproductive from that perspective because these are some of the best stories, some of the most dynamic leaders in China, some of the best ideas coming out of provinces, cities, local governments, in the form of entrepreneurial party secretaries.

And I always felt inspired, leaving Beijing. China is not Beijing, China’s not Shanghai. The further out you go, the more respect you have. People within the government are doing their best to serve their communities, grow local economies, and improve people’s livelihoods. And the absence of all that kind of travel and reporting is, first of all, incomplete. You’re unable to get the complete picture of China. And China itself comes off in the international press less well in other ways.

What challenges do you think the journalists on the ground are facing there during this time, especially in Shanghai with all the intense lockdowns?

Browne: Well, obviously, foreign journalists, like everybody else, are in quarantine. Right? So you can’t travel around. When the first outbreaks occurred in Wuhan, you had these citizen journalists that went down there and started recording scenes of everyday life and providing a counterpoint to the official propaganda, and that isn’t happening now. Voices of Chinese journalists have been quashed, but that doesn’t mean to say that you don’t have access. Social media is an important window. But, it’s only one window. I’ve always been very wary about relying on social media in China for reporting and insights, like anywhere else in the world. It’s not necessarily representative.

In fact, it’s certainly not representative of mainstream thinking and behavior. Still, it is an insight. Like you, like everybody else, I’m riveted now by video clips coming out of China expressing increasing frustration and apprehension, and fear in the local population as food sources dwindle. And people start to question where zero COVID is going and whether or not the cure is worse than the sickness itself.

And then it’s challenging, too, because any videos that do come out from people’s firsthand experiences do get scrubbed and taken down almost immediately.

Browne: Right. Yes, exactly. So you’ve got to be quick, but in the absence of that, journalists have networks. Some of us have been reporting on China for decades. I lived in Shanghai for many, many years. So, you try your best, and I suppose I’m not there anymore, not reporting. But I think the reporting that I’ve seen out of the Western news organizations is pretty strong.

You started your career in the 80s. So what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the journalism industry throughout that time?

Browne: I think, most significantly, compared to the 1980s, you’ve now got really strong local journalism. You’ve got real-time news in the form of social media, the form of networks, and in the form of cable TV. You’ve just got this constant, constant chatter. The challenge now is more trying to contextualize events and put them into a proper perspective, to join up the dots locally, regionally, and internationally for an audience of people who are not familiar with the story.

For organizations like the ones that I’ve been engaged in for over four decades, Reuters, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal a lot of those (organizations) are reliant on a process and disciplines that haven’t changed, and I hope will never change. It has to do with a strong commitment to independence to accuracy. It starts with hiring good people, and it continues with great training.

That goes through with the organization within the bureau. Giving journalists the freedom to go out and write the stories that they want to write, but giving them a structure in which to do that, giving them the support that they need to do that. Then advocating for them to get their work displayed as prominently as possible. The support that you get from headquarters is also absolutely critical. That comes from smart news editing, with editors who are sort of from afar, giving you the perspective of how your work is going to be received in different markets and what you’re missing, in a broad sense. This is all ageless and fortunately, I’ve always worked for news organizations that have been rigorous about this, the Wall Street Journal being a prime example.

What do you consider to be some of the highlights of your career?

Browne: As a reporter, I worked on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series. I think that was an example of really smart editing in the Wall Street Journal’s case out of New York, combined with a committed bureau chief. In my case, it was Rebecca Blumenstein, who was this inspirational editor. She’s now a senior at the New York Times. Believing in reporters, in the work that they were doing, and encouraging them. Giving them time and space to do (their job). The temptation is to get us to crank out spots all the time, but if you really want quality, insightful journalism, this takes time. Getting that balance right is important.

So I think that Pulitzer series where we looked at sort of the dark side of China’s rise after many years when there was far too much “rah-rah” triumphalism, China’s inevitable ascent, and so on. In our series, we said, “Well hang on. We got to lift the hood, look under it, see where things might come apart or are coming apart.” So I’m proud of that.

Running bureaus, recruiting journalists and laterally spotting talent, bringing young people into the bureau, pairing them up, getting combinations right. I brought into the Wall Street Journal, when I was the bureau chief there, Lingling Wei and Bob Davis who teamed up and became the most powerful professional couple, I think, in journalism in China. And that sort of chemistry was something that is formed at a bureau level. And it’s worked really well. So I’m proud of finding people who I brought into Reuters or The Wall Street Journal and seeing their careers progress.

It’s so interesting because I tend to think of the journalists, like the successful journalists, as singular people, the person on the byline. But the way you describe it sounds like it’s so much of a team effort that really makes great journalism.

Browne: You have some journalists who are sort of, I don’t know what the phrase is, sort of Lone Rangers and they go off and do their own thing, but I think very often the most successful ones are ones that do recognize the strengths that their colleagues can bring to their work. On a Wall Street Journal story, more often than not, on the front page, you’ve got two, three, four bylines. It does take teamwork.

Andrew Browne writes on the repercussions of China’s newly strengthened alliance with Russia.

Can you briefly describe what your role is at Bloomberg? And what the editorial director, what does your day-to-day look like?

Browne: So I should just I should tell you that two weeks ago, I left this job. I’ll tell you my next one, but for four years, I curated a conference called the Bloomberg New Economy Forum. The thesis of this forum was that the center of gravity of the global economy is shifting East. We’ve seen the tensions, conflicts, suspicions, and misunderstandings, as well as the opportunities that this has created. We need a platform to talk through some of this. When we set it up, I don’t think any of us understood quite how important this was going to be. Before the trade war, before tit for tat sanctions, obviously, before Ukraine, which has brought a lot of these issues to a head, it was a business-focused event. Some of it was on the record, sort of on the big stage, talking through the issues. A lot of the work took place in closed rooms and roundtables where we brought together CEOs from China, the U.S.A., Latin America, and Africa, not just to talk through issues, but also to try to figure out solutions. So it’s a very purposeful conversation.

Then we set up councils, where we brought together global experts to drill into some of these issues more in-depth on trade, finance, climate, cities, and public health, these five issues. We brought in real, expertise, internally, from Bloomberg, Bloomberg Economics, Bloomberg New Energy, Finance, Bloomberg Intelligence. A lot of people don’t know this, but behind the news side is this incredibly powerful research capability. We’re working to harness some of that by working with the McKinsey Global Institute and the Eurasia group, trying to bring together groups of people working for a common goal, and then putting in place working with these experts to try to sort of embed that thinking in the actual plans and of some of the world’s leading companies sharing best practices, collaborating across borders, all these things (that are important but) aren’t happening nearly as much as they should, as walls go up around the global economy.

What is your next move?

Browne: I’m setting up a practice for the Brunswick Group, which is a UK-based, critical issues consultancy. It’s very obvious that companies need a new set of tools to help manage the increasing China risk. The tensions that we’ve seen over the last three, or four years aren’t going away. In fact, they’re going to deepen. China’s not going away, and companies have to engage in China. More and more are asking how to engage with China in a way that you could explain to all the various stakeholders in the business, from employees to shareholders, to human rights groups. So we’re coming up with a sort of a fresh way to help companies think through some of these profoundly important questions that they’re going to face over the next 5–10 years in thinking about their engagement with China. It’s a mixture of what I’ve been doing at Bloomberg and what I was doing all these years, in the news bureaus.

Above, Andrew Browne describes his experience working with the NBC News Team covering the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Can you describe your experience being a news correspondent for the Olympics this year?

Browne: It was a really interesting assignment. The opening ceremony of the Olympics is a huge deal for NBC. I thought it was going to be explaining all around the issues- the geopolitical issues and human rights issues- that bedeviled the games around Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, Taiwan. But then the whole thing was overshadowed by this extraordinary meeting that took place in the hours ahead of the opening ceremony when Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin got together and proclaimed that there would be no limits to their relationship. For me, at least, that put the games into an entirely different context. China kept saying that we shouldn’t politicize the Olympics. This is probably the most politicized Olympics in the history of the Olympic movement.

As the games progressed, the drumbeat of war grew louder and louder out of Europe. I said at the beginning of the Olympics, if Putin goes into Ukraine, while these Olympics are underway, and if Xi supports him, the world is going to be a very different place by the time we get to the closing ceremony. As it happened, Putin held off for a couple of days until after the Olympics, which is very likely some kind of a deal that they struck. But the world is now a very different place. And unfortunately, China’s made a set of I think, terrible miscalculations.

I know, there was a lot of criticism surrounding the lack of news commentary about the Xinjiang Uighur genocide.

Browne: Not from NBC. I don’t know what criticism there was, but NBC acquitted itself very well. There was no aspect of Xinjiang and the camps and the human rights abuses that are going on in Xinjiang that went unmentioned, both in a monologue that Mike Tirico did right ahead of the opening ceremony to the interview that I did with Savannah Guthrie at the ceremony itself. I was actually sitting next to the VIP section where Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin were about to appear, talking about Xinjiang and human rights.

So I think that there was, I think that there was an expectation that NBC might downplay Xinjiang, along with Hong Kong, and some of these other issues. They do real news, and their sportspeople are our news people. And I felt very, I felt very proud to be associated with that.

I feel like there’s a line to toe- as these issues can’t not be mentioned, but one may also feel that they have to be careful about how it’s mentioned, especially with these leaders right there within the audience.

Browne: Who cares? Honestly, the fact that Xi Jinping was sitting right there is neither here nor there. That was never a consideration. We were talking about this earlier, the sensitivities about (censorship). I don’t know of any journalists that won’t cover certain topics or say certain things in serious journalism because they’re worried about repercussions. And frankly, the Chinese expect us to. They understand the way that the international media works. And they protect themselves with their great firewall. They prevent what you write or say, from looping back into China. They do what they have to do and we do our job.

What do you believe are some of the challenges and advantages that newer generations of journalists will have to contend with?

Browne: Well, what I found to the end of my tenure at the Wall Street Journal, and actually at Reuters as well, was that it was getting harder and harder to find young journalists who were prepared to travel, or prepared to up the stakes and leave London, leave New York, leave the big cities of the world, and go off in an intrepid way and work in smaller news bureaus around Asia, which is where all of my journalistic experience has been. I found that was really surprising and frustrating that, partly, this had to do with the cost of uprooting. People have financial commitments and mortgages and kids in school and so on. The ones that I’m seeing now that I think are going to do the best are younger journalists who just say, “I’m going to head off to the Middle East, I’m going to learn Arabic, and I’m going to file for whoever I can, and get some experience and use that as my entry.”

I find it very frustrating that younger journalists don’t consider language study to be important. I find it astonishing that J schools do not have, as a matter of routine, a language component. To me, every J school needs to be locked into a foreign languages program. I found it just about impossible to find J school graduates with Chinese. I had to recruit people and then send them off to study Chinese. I think literacy and fluency in another language should be part of an essential toolkit of a global journalist, an international journalist. And secondly, a basic literacy when it comes to economics and markets.

I think a combination of willingness and enthusiasm to travel and see the world, fluency in a language, and financial literacy are the three things that (will set journalists up for success.) Just graduating with a degree in journalism gets you some of the way there. Maybe if you want to spend your entire career in the US, or whatever your first language is, maybe that works. I’ve always been International, I’ve always dealt with younger reporters that want to climb up through the ranks in an international career, and that was always my advice.

Do you have any other bits of advice for an aspiring journalist trying to break into the journalism industry, especially in an international sphere?

Browne: Well, apart from what I just mentioned, around language and financial literacy, those I think, a really critical. What I noticed now is that people are starting to think about journalism as, “Oh, maybe I’m going to be a journalist for a couple of years, and then I’m going to go and become an investment banker or something.” I wasn’t very interested in recruiting people like that. I was much more interested in recruiting people who wanted to make a career out of the news and the business, who love the news, who are committed to the news, and committed to truth and telling stories, and just found it inspiring. There’s a great community there. It’s a great fellowship, and there was excitement in that. I think, if you want a successful career in journalism, you better be all in. You’ve got to know if this is what you want to do.

Q and A by Alayna Wood for the Reynolds Sandbox



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