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Jonathan Fenby

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By all logic, a media career is the absolute last thing Jonathan Fenby should have wanted.
After all, both his parents were journalists, and as any amateur psychologist would be quick to point out, that should spell rebellion from word go. Instead Jonathan went on to occupy some of the most respected editorial positions in the industry and five decades later shows no sign of easing up.

Fresh from Oxford, he joined Reuters as a graduate trainee and ten months later was dispatched to Paris to fill in during the summer – his first ‘international’ assignment. A Fenby-watcher would have spotted the enterprise even back then; Jonathan was sent across for a month but managed to stay on for 18. The same enterprise took him to Vietnam during the height of the war, back to Paris as Bureau Chief and pretty soon, to becoming editor of the Reuters World Media Service.

Next came stints at a host of respected newspapers – as Bureau Chief for The Economist in France and Germany; back in London to be Home Editor for the newly-launched Independent; a Deputy Editor role at The Guardian and finally, as editor of the Observer, where he reversed the paper’s falling fortunes and earned a host of awards.
And there he may have stayed, a respected man in a comfortable job, if life hadn’t ordained otherwise. Internal issues with the trusts that governed the Observer meant that he found himself, as he told an interviewer from Baillie Gifford recently, “without a job on a Thursday afternoon.”

A call from his former editor at the Economist set him off on the path that was to dominate his life over the next few decades: towards China. He was offered and accepted the role of editor for the Hong-Kong based South China Morning Post during the heady days of the territory’s handover to China and went on to make the paper the most profitable newspaper in the world on a per reader basis.

More significantly, he developed a fascination with the country that has over the years turned him into one of the world’s most experienced China watchers. Today, as founding partner and Managing Director of the China team at Trusted Sources, a London-based emerging markets research and consultancy firm, he’s putting that fascination to fabulous use. His areas of expertise are policy interpretation, Chinese politics and the broader political economy, aspects on which he consults with over 90 clients and writes a regular blog. He spends about three months a year in China and, in the last decade and half, has published six books on the country including, earlier this year, the bestselling Tiger Head Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got There and Where It Is Heading.

The title may be a mouthful, the book is anything but. A sharp and comprehensive overview of the China story, it offers a big picture look at the complexity and contradictions that make up the country and offers a reasoned analysis for where he sees it going next: neither to doomsday, as Sino-snobs argue nor to unabashed growth, as the other side fervently believes. Instead the truth lies somewhere in the middle which, as Jonathan laughingly put it in a recent interview, makes for a far less sexy title. The book received glowing reviews from virtually all quarters, including one in the FT by Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC and last governor of Hong Kong, one of the few other ‘westerners’ in a position to offer an inside perspective on the country.

Today, Jonathan is a highly-valued China commentator for television and print, and speaks at universities and conferences globally. In 2000, he was made a Commander of the British Empire and already holds the title of Chevalier of the French Order of Merit.
But it seems fair to speculate that perhaps none of these achievements give him as much pleasure as the fact that his son, Alex, has chosen to become a journalist.

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