You’ve been appointed the BBC’s first China editor. How free are you to report what goes on in the country?
The Chinese don’t tell you what to report or not to report; they just make it hard for you to get to stories they don’t want you to know about. There’s a game that goes on with the police and government officials, an ebb and flow of etiquette that moves between politeness and intimidation.
It’s a world of rules – and when you’re doing something they don’t like, they’ll find a rule that says you shouldn’t be doing it. But China is a relatively safe place for journalists. The worst that can happen to you is that they’ll throw you out of the country. Your life is not in danger. Except on the roads because of traffic accidents!
Your history with China goes back a long way.
Yes, I taught English and a bit of economics at universities there in 1985/6. But I didn’t speak any Chinese. After I came back to Britain, I studied Mandarin. I did an O-level, an A-level and a degree, all at evening classes.
Is it tougher to be taken seriously as a female reporter?
I don’t think so… except that sometimes there’s an instinctive assumption that if you’re a woman asking the questions, it’s because the BBC hasn’t sent its most senior person. But I don’t think it’ll take too long for me to convince them otherwise. I’ve only been in this job for two months – give me a year and they’ll have worked it out.
China is an interesting society from a gender point of view. Obviously, politics and most of the big state-owned enterprises are male at the top. But a lot of the most successful private companies are led by women. There are some very powerful women doing very impressive things.
Is it seen as “undignified” for a woman reporter to ask pointed questions?
It’s undignified for a man or a woman. It’s not the Chinese way. So people are used to me being rude.
You made the headlines in 2009 when you revealed that your salary as a BBC News Channel presenter was £92,000. Do you now regret saying that on air?
No because I’m a very open person. I’m very straight and direct and I like to be transparent. Most of the viewers thought: “Good on you for being prepared to talk about it.”
OK, so you can guess our final question: how much are you earning as China editor?
The answer to this question is that I now discover, from having talked about my salary before, that it’s not just up to me. It relates to other people and other people’s salaries and other people’s circumstances. So whereas I really don’t have an issue with it, I’m not going to tell you what my salary is now.
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