Lisa Murray: AFR China Correspondent

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance

“Shanghai is widely regarded as the world’s gateway to China. It is becoming a rival to Hong Kong as a base for foreign companies looking to expand their business.”

Just over five years ago, Lisa Murray and her husband Angus packed up their lives in Sydney and moved to Shanghai to take up a double posting with the Australian Financial Review (AFR) newspaper. This was not their first time landing in a hot and humid Asian city with little more than a laptop; they had previously lived and worked in Indonesia as journalists. Shanghai was different, however, because they had company; their two daughters, Harriet and Clara, who were just three and one at the time. A career to date that included freelancing for the Financial Times, Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and Asia Sentinel, Jakarta with 15 years’ experience as a journalist meant that Murray knew a thing or two about being a correspondent. But nothing prepared her for being a correspondent in China…

What topics you most regularly cover as a China Correspondent?

Every morning, Angus and I wake up and ask ourselves how China has changed the world today. For Australians, this is particularly relevant. Whether it be iron ore, beef, infant formula or fish oil tablets, Australia is incredibly reliant on the Chinese market for its growth. China now accounts for more than a quarter of Australia’s overall trade. It is both Australia’s largest export market and biggest source of imports.

When we first arrived in early 2012, Xi Jinping was getting ready to take charge, and there was endless speculation about what sort of leader he would be. I think everyone has been surprised with the speed at which the new Chinese President has consolidated power. China’s more assertive foreign policy has also put the world on notice. Over the past five years, China has become a key player on the global stage, swinging its support behind global efforts to combat climate change, setting up an infrastructure lender to rival the World Bank and taking a more aggressive stance in both the East and South China Seas. All of this means Angus and I never fight over stories. There are too many of them!

How does your job differ being based in Shanghai than being based in Sydney?

There is a lot more scrutiny of journalists and the media in China. We are monitored by the Foreign Ministry and the Public Security Bureau and our visas are reviewed every year. Access is difficult. China is a one-party state and government departments are closely managed. While the foreign ministry holds a daily press conference in Beijing, from Shanghai we are required to fax our questions and often there is no reply. If there is a reply, it usually comes two to three days later.

Under Xi, China has moved to silence critics and dissidents so it can be difficult to find people to comment on controversial issues.

Despite these challenges, working as a reporter in China’s commercial capital is exciting. Shanghai is a dynamic and international city, which attracts entrepreneurs and risk-takers from around the country and the globe. There is also an opportunity to travel, which often produces the most compelling stories. My assignments have included feature articles on China’s budding wine region in Ningxia as well as the mountainous area of Sichuan which has become a Bitcoin mining hub. I also travelled to Taiwan to cover the election of its first female leader and to the far west province of Xinjiang, where tension between China’s dominant Han ethnic group and Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim population, has prompted a heavy security response. 

Do you speak Mandarin?

Angus and I began learning Mandarin when we arrived in Shanghai and we have an excellent researcher and translator in the AFR bureau, which is crucial for in-depth reporting on China. Our daughters both speak Mandarin, a skill we hope they will keep up over their lifetimes.

What’s the biggest drawcard for expats to move to Shanghai? How would you describe the quality of life for an expat in Shanghai?

Shanghai is widely regarded as the world’s gateway to China. It is becoming a rival to Hong Kong as a base for foreign companies looking to expand their business.

There are still many legal and regulatory hurdles but Shanghai is well-regarded among expats as an attractive and liveable city. Its creative scene is developing with world-class venues opening up and there are an endless number of new bars and restaurants. Pollution is a problem, particularly for those with young families, but Shanghai’s air quality compares favourably with Beijing and schools reduce outdoor playtime on particularly hazy days. Internet censorship can be a problem as China’s government blocks websites such as Google, Facebook, the New York Times and Bloomberg. The government is becoming stricter on applications that allow people to circumvent these bans. More than any other city in China, people tend to speak English, which makes Shanghai easier to navigate, although Mandarin is essential if you want to be based there for a lengthy period of time.

Does it take a certain type of personality to succeed in the workplace in Shanghai?

The more successful people in Shanghai are flexible and adaptable. It is important to be open to new experiences and sensitive to cultural differences. The rules are different in China and they change constantly. It is important to be across those changes and adjust accordingly.

Where would you recommend travelling from Shanghai?

Everywhere. I have already mentioned Ningxia, which is in north-central China and is where Moet Hennessy has begun making Chinese champagne, and Sichuan province, which is home to one of the country’s most famous spicy cuisines. Kashgar, in Xinjiang, should be one of the greatest tourist destinations in the world with its rugged landscape and unique culture, but heavy security makes travel difficult. Another interesting assignment was to Dandong, a trading town in northern China which sits across the river from North Korea. Speed boat tours can take you right up to the shore line of the reclusive regime. And Taiwan is always worth a visit. I was lucky enough to interview famous-heavy-metal-rocker-turned-activist-politician Freddy Lim on one of my trips there.