Q&A: Edward White, Seoul bureau chief for the Financial Times

Edward White is the Seoul bureau chief for the Financial Times, covering the Korean Peninsula. He started his current role in May this year, and was previously based in Taiwan. Here, he shares his insights into life as a journalist covering Asia.

Can you talk us through your early journalism career? 

I started out in journalism in Sydney writing a few freelance pieces on indigenous issues and working graveyard shifts in production covering all sorts of sports at Fox Sports (the TV station).

I then spent five years covering the energy, mining and resources sectors back home for online subscription-based business news services run by Freeman Media in Wellington and later in Auckland.

During that time, with support from the higher ups at Freeman Media and funding from the Asia New Zealand Foundation, I did a few reporting trips to Asia. I covered controversial dam building projects in Malaysian Borneo, business opportunities emerging at the time in Myanmar and Indonesia’s haphazard efforts to boost renewable energy investments.

What made you decide to move to Asia?

A few different things. Those reporting trips mentioned earlier, and travelling in the region more generally, gave me a taste of the endless opportunities for interesting stories in Asia.

That seemed particularly true in the intersections between politics, business, social development and the environment, which I was especially interested in at the time, as well as foreign policy and security, which I had studied a bit at university. The other key thing was I knew I wanted to better understand and eventually report on China. But I had been encouraged by a senior reporter based in Beijing to first get at least some language capability before trying to do any serious reporting from China.

At the time I had a few friends studying Chinese in Taiwan who had good things to say about the country. Eventually I was lucky to get support from Taiwan’s Huayu programme and the New Zealand government Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia to study Chinese language for a year at National Taiwan University — not to mention a very, very supportive partner.

Once in Taiwan it was obvious there was a huge amount happening in the wake of the Sunflower Movement with the transition from the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang government to the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive party and the country’s first woman president, Tsai Ing-wen. So we decided to stay on and I was able to find work reporting there, first with a new Asia-focused media start up, The News Lens, before joining the FT in 2017.

Edward White Financial Times

Edward White studied Chinese in Taiwan before finding reporting work in the country. PHOTO: Joe Russo

What was it like working as a journalist in Taiwan?

Reporting there is, by the standards of the region, fairly easy in accessing official information and having contact with government sources, and media freedom more generally is sound — with some exceptions.

I was there at a time of almost unprecedented pressure on the Taiwanese government from Beijing (which claims Taiwan as part of its own territory) — across diplomatic, military, economic and other more coercive measures — so it was something of a frontline for the sharp end of the Chinese Communist party’s foreign policy, which was very interesting to report on and a globally important story to cover.

It was also a really good learning opportunity for covering the technology sector. I had to cover Taiwanese computer chip manufacturers, which are at the heart of the global tech supply chain and also face an existential challenge as China’s technological and economical prowess continues to race ahead.

The community of foreign reporters is relatively small but still quite competitive with most major publications and agencies represented either via a bureau or stringers and freelancers. Reporters from Hong Kong, the US and China also frequently parachute in for stories.

Edward White FInancial Times

The community of foreign reporters in Taipei is small but competitive, says White. PHOTO: Joe Russo

What sort of preparation did you have to do before moving to Seoul – did you know much about Korea?

What you might expect in terms of devouring as many articles, books, podcasts and interviews as possible. I also talked at length with anyone I knew with experience there — including my FT predecessors and several editors and some helpful competitor reporters with experience of the country.

I had some knowledge of the main companies, particularly the big electronics manufacturers like Samsung, LG and SK, from covering the tech sector in Taiwan. I had also been following the North Korea issue quite closely over the past few years — it came up frequently as a topic for regular radio crosses I do with RNZ.

A couple of things I definitely hadn’t quite grasped was how divided South Korea is domestically along political lines and also just how close the world came to conflict amid Kim Jong Un’s military provocations in 2017 and Donald Trump’s bombastic responses at the time. I also hadn’t picked up on how alive and real the tension between Tokyo and Seoul still is — stemming from Japan’s wartime rule on the peninsula.

One of the upsides of coming into a new country or sector or beat relatively fresh — and probably part of the reason foreign correspondents, like diplomats, often get rotated around different countries — is having that heightened awareness of what is interesting or unusual and also maybe a keener sense of what non-expert readers or audiences don’t necessarily know about. Of course you are always going to be competing with someone who knows more about a subject than you, but I think being new to a place or a topic does have some advantages in terms of a fresh perspective and probably also just the excitement and pressure of reporting on a new country.

What has reporting in Seoul been like so far and what do you spend most of your time writing about?

It has been a fairly frenetic few months with the North Koreans restarting regular ballistic missile tests two days before I started work, a fresh high-level Samsung scandal, an impromptu visit by Donald Trump (and meeting with Kim at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas), and now a spiralling dispute between Japan and South Korea stemming from Japan’s colonial rule over the peninsula.

North Korea is a big focus for us. As such a closed-off country just trying to get reliable information about what is actually happening inside — across everything from the nuclear programme, life for ordinary people, development of the economy, human rights and Pyongyang’s sanctions-busting activities — takes up a lot of our time and effort.

Domestically in Seoul, we closely cover the chaebol — the opaque family-owned groups which dominate business — as well as the economy more generally, because the health of South Korean businesses can be a key early indicator for the health of trade and the economy across the region. There are also some very interesting social stories related to the women’s rights movement and issues linked to the country’s ageing population and demographic challenges.

Edward White Financial Times

White interviews Freddy Lim, a renowned heavy metal singer and politician in Taiwan. PHOTO: Joe Russo

Can you share your advice for any aspiring foreign correspondents who might want to work in Asia?

There’s no substitute for being in the region so take any opportunity to travel here, or, ideally, move here. Capability in one of the languages is a big help but I wouldn’t be put off if you don’t have that just yet — just get started as soon as possible.

Funnily enough, one of the biggest gaps I’ve seen among people applying for journalist jobs is just in straight reporting experience and ability. It might sound odd but I would say writing or producing as much as news as possible and honing interviewing skills and the like while still in New Zealand is definitely worthwhile.

One of the great things about Asia is every country is interesting and important in its own way, and I don’t think it matters hugely where you start out. That said, understanding China (and spending time there) as much as possible will be very helpful wherever you end up — even back in New Zealand. Its size and incredible growth over recent decades means it has a huge, and expanding influence throughout the region.

Definitely don’t be afraid to get in touch with as many New Zealanders (especially Kiwi reporters, diplomats and businesspeople) based here as you can — obviously the Asia New Zealand Foundation network can be a big help with introductions. I’m indebted to countless New Zealanders in Asia for so much help I’ve been given over the years.

Foreign correspondents’ clubs are also a good place to meet people and get a better idea of what jobs or opportunities might be coming up and who you would need to talk to within a news organisation, as well as advice for visas and contacts and those sorts of things.

Finally, don’t be put off by being turned down for jobs or other applications, or if you’ve not had the success you might have liked earlier in your career, or if you are just starting out. I can only speak for myself but I’ve had applications turned down for most things I’ve tried for before eventually getting them — including my first Asia New Zealand Foundation media grant application. 

Finally, do you have any thoughts about what New Zealand media can do to cover Asia better?

It seems like an absolute no-brainer that the resources from the major television news organisations that go into funding the correspondents we do have based in London and possibly even New York should go toward having someone in China who can cover the broader region. There are just so many stories that are important to New Zealand that don’t get covered and I think there is a chronic misconception about the level of interest among everyday New Zealanders about these stories — from my experience talking to people back home, Kiwis actually really want to know more about Asia and how the changes across the region will impact New Zealand.

I think there is also a big opportunity for the right organisation — probably RNZ — to have an independent Chinese-language news service, something akin to what RNZ already does with its Pacific coverage. This is not my own idea but one I firmly support. My understanding is that there is a large amount of Chinese state media republished in New Zealand at the moment. This current trend does not fit well with the freedom of speech that the rest of New Zealand enjoys and seems likely to lead to more problems in the future if a large part of society is not served by the same impartial and independent news sources as native English speakers.

Finally, one of the unfortunate truths is that when covering Asia you are often still reporting on and dealing with authoritarian regimes. As British historian Richard Grunberger wrote, one of the trademarks of authoritarianism is that opposition to a government becomes confused with opposition to a country. It is important to keep in mind that say, reporting on Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya crisis, isn’t a criticism of Myanmar as a country or its people. Similarly, reporting on the mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang or the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, doesn’t meant that you are being anti-China, or anti-Chinese people. I think it is really important to always make these distinctions for the reader or audience so to avoid racist and xenophobic responses, while also of course not being dissuaded and scared of covering complex and controversial topics in the first place.

 - Asia Media Centre