Interview with ACYD Alumni and Fairfax's China Correspondent Phil Wen

Phil Wen

Ahead of ACYD Alumni Phil Wen’s move to China to take up the prestigious role of China Correspondent for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, ACYD Executive Director Fiona Lawrie sat down with him to discuss the challenges and opportunities ahead for the Australia China relationship.

Fiona Lawrie – Firstly, congratulations on being appointed The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s correspondent for China. This is an extremely prestigious role and you have big shoes to fill [John Garnaut, previous Fairfax correspondent in Beijing]. What are the biggest challenges you are expecting to face going into this enormous role?

Phil Wen – I am really fortunate that John Garnaut has been an extremely well respected journalist in China. Because of his strong reputation for the thorough and fair reporting that he has brought to Beijing, people will be more open to talking to me, confident that their stories will be properly represented. John Garnaut has really set the bar high.

FL – What are you most looking forward to about taking up this role?

PW – My strength is in telling the stories of ordinary Chinese people. I am looking forward to bridging the cultural divide, bringing understanding to big topics that are often ignored to give way for the important economic stories. I believe that there is a consensus that China’s economy is slowing, and as that is becoming more and more apparent, there is a momentum towards accepting China’s current growth isn’t sustainable and looking at other issues fundamental to the country. I look forward to covering in detail the new government leading the country, as well as the environment.

FL – You have got one of the most sought after jobs in journalism; however, you haven’t always been a journalist. Tell me about your journey to get to where you are.

PW – I have always read the newspaper, but as a kid I used to start from the sport and the ‘Green Guide’ section. I did a Bachelor of Commerce at university and got a graduate position with KPMG in their tax division. I enjoyed it at the beginning, but as time went on, I realised that I was going to do the role for the next 30 – 40 years so I better enjoy it. The turning point was during the Global Financial Crisis when I realised that I wanted to be made redundant so that I could get a package, but it didn’t happen. Showing up to work hoping to get sacked is not the key to a successful career.

I studied journalism at the University of Technology Sydney and got an internship at the Sydney Morning Herald. Upon graduating from university, I joined the Sydney Morning Herald and wrote for the business and general news sections. My big break came in 2011 when I was given the opportunity to work in Beijing, while John Garnaut was taking time off to write a book. This was a marvellous experience for a young reporter.

FL – You are going to China at a very interesting time. It is widely acknowledged that Julia Gillard made significant inroads in building a strong relationship with China during her visit there in March. How is the expected federal government change in September 2013 going to affect the relationship?

PW – Given the long history of bilateral relations between Australia and China, I believe that the Chinese government has an open mind toward their relationship with Australia. I don't believe they will prejudge the Australian relationship based on its leader. Despite Liberal politicians typically having a pro-US foreign policy, I think it is widely acknowledged by politicians on both sides, that we cannot pick sides and must juggle our relationship with China and with the US.

We haven’t heard enough about Tony Abbott’s policy for China; however, I believe that if he gets the mandate, he might actually lead.

FL – How has your involvement with the Australia China Youth Dialogue helped you in your professional and personal development?

PW – ACYD is great for bringing together like-minded young Australian and Chinese individuals at the top of their game in their respective fields. It has broadened my opinions and friendships. It is such a novel idea and great initiative and has ensured that the Australia-China people to people linkages are really strong and growing.

To see articles written by Phil Wen, please click here.