Q&A: Anna Fifield, Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post

One of the bylines most associated with Asia is that of New Zealand journalist Anna Fifield. From her first job at The Rotorua Daily Post to her current position as Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, with a 13-year stint at the Financial Times in between, Fifield has reported from more than 20 countries and become a highly regarded specialist on North Korea. She spoke with the Asia Media Centre about her career as a foreign correspondent and her new book, The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong Un.

great successor

Were you always interested in Asia, or did that come later?

No, it was just kind of random in that I’d always wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and when I worked at the Financial Times, the job they offered me was in Korea. I was based in Seoul from 2004 to 2008. It was a great first posting because it’s so multi-faceted, especially working for the FT. I covered Samsung and Hyundai — all the big business stories — as well as the political stories and North Korea. During that period, I went to North Korea 11 times. It was a great job in terms of variety and news value.

You’re now considered one of the most authoritative journalists on North Korea. Where do you even start when it comes to cultivating relationships to be able to report on such an isolated country?

When I started, first of all I went to the North Korean embassy in London and spent time with the diplomats there. I basically just listened to what they had to say. I must have struck them as being open-minded or something, because they let me go for two weeks by myself for that very first visit. That was fantastic — I got to see a lot. Then it was just about making contacts and finding invitations and ways to get back in. One time I went with a Rotary group, another time I went on a journalists’ trip, then I went with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It was kind of a full-time job, trying to find ways to get in to North Korea. I should say for every time I got in, there were 25 times I did not.

Do you think you can report on North Korea without ever having been there? Or was going there instrumental to your reporting?

I think a lot of people report on North Korea without ever having gone there. The most valuable information I get about North Korea does not come from North Korea — it comes from interviews I’ve done in China on the North Korean border, either with traders who go back and forth, or defectors who have escaped and live in hiding in China. Sometimes I’ve been able to meet people who left North Korea just a week before. They can tell you what life is really like inside. Whereas when you go to Pyongyang on these government-organised trips, you’re heavily monitored, and they decide where you’re going. You don’t see the real North Korea; you see this Potemkin village. Everything is very carefully choreographed.

Anna Fifield

Anna Fifield, reporting from North Korea.

Tell us about your new book, The Great Successor. Is it the culmination of all your reporting on North Korea?

When I was going to North Korea during the Kim Jong-il period, I could see how broken the economy was and how little love there was for the leader. I did not think they would be able to manage a transition to a third generation Kim leader. When I returned to cover the Koreas for The Washington Post in 2014, I was astonished that not only had Kim Jong-un managed to take over and stay in power for more than two years by that stage, but the city looked so much better. There were fancy buildings going up everywhere and there was a much more leisurely quality to life in the city. When you go to Pyongyang now, people go to yoga classes. You can buy a cappuccino, drink craft beer, and eat pizza. I was thinking, how did this young, inexperienced, unqualified guy manage to do it? I wanted to figure out how he’d managed to defy all the expectations. So I started talking to people who had met him as a child — his aunt and uncle who looked after him in Switzerland where he went to school, the Japanese sushi chef who’d been part of the royal household. I just kind of went around trying to meet everybody who’d ever encountered him. It’s not a biography because we still don’t know enough about him, but it pulls together all the information that is available to try to create a portrait of a leader.

You moved to The Washington Post’s Beijing bureau last year. How’s that going?

I love it — it’s very exciting. There’s so much news surrounding China. Working for an American paper, obviously I’m deep in the trade war and writing a lot about the actions against Huawei. My thing is that I really like to write about ordinary life, and how people live and hope in China. So as much as possible I’ve been getting out to far-flung cities and into the countryside to try and do stories. Recently, I did a story on China’s efforts to get over the one-child policy and to encourage people to have two or more babies, talking to people about why they didn’t want to do that. That’s the kind of reporting I love to do.

I’m sure there are plenty, but what would you say is the biggest challenge for journalists working in China right now?

My biggest daily challenge is just the sheer volume of news. There are only two correspondents in our bureau, and we’ve got a lot of news to do. We have to make choices about what is the story of the day and what we should write, because we can’t do everything. But also access to information is a huge challenge in China. For example, reporters who go to Xinjiang find they cannot move freely — as soon as you arrive, you’re tailed, and you cannot interview people. The surveillance is all-encompassing for journalists. There are a lot of hurdles to reporting about sensitive issues in China.

Anna Fifield

"Everything is very carefully choreographed" in North Korea.

Is there a sense of camaraderie among foreign correspondents in China because of these kinds of challenges? Or is it just as competitive as any other beat?

Both — it’s very competitive because there are so many journalists here, but it’s also quite collaborative in that we’re all facing the same situations. For example, every week the Foreign Correspondents’ Club puts out an email that includes incident reports — we all report any kind of obstruction to our jobs over the course of the week — and every year we put out a report about media freedoms, or lack of, in China. We work together to push for things like access to Tibet and freedom of reporting in Xinjiang. So there is a lot of collaboration as well, just because it is so difficult and we are stronger together.

Can you share your advice for any aspiring foreign correspondents?

I think the fundamentals are the same everywhere. I was in a very lowly job at the FT in London when I first got through the door, and I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, so I just started volunteering for every reporting shift on public holidays when nobody else wanted to work. One weekend when I had volunteered to fill in for somebody, the Queen Mother died, so I got a front-page story. It was about seizing opportunities and raising my hand early on. I’d been at the FT for barely a year when a job opened to be the Belgrade correspondent. I knew I had no chance of getting it, but I applied, and did a lot of research so I was well-prepared when I went in to the interview. The person who interviewed me is now the editor of the FT. So I got an audition, basically. I didn’t get the job, but a year later when our Australia correspondent went on maternity leave and they needed someone to cover her for six months, they sent me. I think creating opportunities for yourself and throwing yourself into those opportunities is the most important thing, no matter where you are.

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

It’s surprising to me as an outsider that New Zealand media doesn’t cover Asia more intensively. Our few foreign correspondents that we have are in London — it’s so Europe-focused, which seems so anachronistic now. New Zealand is part of Asia. New Zealand’s biggest trading markets are in Asia. We have all these Asian immigrant communities in New Zealand. It’s always surprising to me that there is not more interest and coverage of Asia as something that is so much more relevant to New Zealand’s economy and life now.

Interview and editing by Siobhan Downes.

 - Asia Media Centre