NEWS JUNKY I grew up in a beautiful part of Sydney, Australia, on the harbour and next to the beach, surrounded by bush land. I couldn't afford to live there these days but back then I always wanted to leave. I think I was always destined to be a journalist; I grew up obsessed with news and sport. I used to wait to grab the newspaper from my father as soon as it came through the front door.
From the time I became a journalist, I plotted to work in Asia. Going to London or New York and landing a job has long been a well-trodden Antipodean path, but to me Asia always mattered more; it's a place being invented before your eyes. I remember vividly my first impression of Asia, disembarking from a plane at [Singapore's] Changi Airport long before air-conditioned terminals and being swamped by the intoxicating mix of aircraft diesel fuel and heavy humidity.
GETTING THERE I first went to China in 1987 and that trip was enough to persuade me to return, but it took a while to realise my ambition. I went to Taiwan to work and study but instead of getting a job in China, I was sent to Japan and then Hong Kong before arriving in Beijing in 1998. Yet after striving for years to get to China's capital, I didn't stay long. I blame Hunan [province's] capital, Changsha, for that. Homesick after eight years away and with the offer of a job at home, I made up my mind to return to Australia during an assignment in a freezing Changsha hotel room on a miserable winter's day.
After a two-year stint in Canberra, I returned to Shanghai [to work for] the Financial Times, in 2000. Although I covered the economy and business, anyone who wants to make sense of China has to approach the story with a patient political mindset. Just doing the numbers is never enough.
CHAMBERS OF SECRETS Many people seem strangely naive or wilfully blind to the importance of politics in China. Most struggle to grasp that the ruling [Communist Party] is separate to the government, a living and breathing entity unto itself. It is not hard to understand why outsiders struggle with the party; it does not welcome scrutiny from outsiders of any ilk, local or foreign. Like communist parties throughout history, [China's] is secretive by habit and instinct.
I am sure many readers of the South China Morning Post have experienced the perennial 'if-only-the-rest-of-the-world-understood-China-better' conversation, in which a Chinese official laments how the world would be instantly set to rights once outsiders grasped how the Middle Kingdom works. The truth is the party strives to make the political system as opaque and impenetrable as possible. They might want you to understand China better, but only as they present it to you. They certainly don't want you to know what is going on inside the party.
POLITICAL MACHINATIONS Being within the party gives you the right to express an opinion. Outsiders do not enjoy the same privileges. That is one of the keys to understanding China and the way political issues are framed. There are other keys to understanding the party. One is that it is a political machine, with the same kind of impulses and incentives that drive political machines everywhere. Political machines are all about staying in power and dispensing patronage. In that respect, the party is one big patronage machine. But to stay in power, the party's leaders have learned other lessons - that they have to produce results. The party has been clever enough to unleash and channel the pent-up energy and demands of ordinary people. For centuries the Chinese were the most creative people in the world and the party destroyed this energy when it came to power. Its recent leaders have become smart enough to harness it.
CRASHING THE PARTY China has become a more open and freer society in the past 30 years. The party is such an odd beast by comparison. While the Chinese have thrived around it, it has remained in the bunker, refusing to show its face. That's why I decided to write a book about the operations of the modern-day Communist Party. I am, of course, not the first person to try to do so, but few sinologists have written about the party in a way that is accessible to the ordinary reader.
The party is a difficult phenomenon to report on day-to-day. Political journalism thrives on partisan competition which, by definition in a one-party state, there is none of in China. The party makes sure its infighting is kept out of sight. In setting up interviews, I would tell my targets I was writing a book 'about how China is governed'. That was not untrue, as far as it went, but it made the whole process easier. Discussions with a foreign journalist are against 'party discipline', which is a force more powerful than mere laws. But they might talk to you about the issue once you turn up in their office.
So you get whatever you can from wherever you can: from chatting to officials off-record over bladder-bursting jugs of tea; from party newspapers, which contain a tonne of information once you know where to look for it (my favourite is the Study Times, published by the Central Party School); from Hong Kong, where mainlanders are more relaxed than they are at home; and from Taiwan, which only a few years ago had a political system that was a mirror image of [the mainland's].
SHROUDED IN MYSTERY The best compliment I have had for my book is that it was like reading a detective story. As someone who has always wanted to write a thriller, I liked this. And I often felt like a detective in researching the book, creeping Columbo-like around the edges of the political system, trying to unobtrusively gather material in the hope of solving a grand mystery.
I left Beijing for London in late 2009. [This month], I move to Washington [in the United States]. Having witnessed close-up the rise of a superpower, I wonder if my next job will be to chart the inevitable decline of another.