- Spring 2013
Keith Richburg has been a Washington Post reporter for more than three decades, with 20 years overseas as a foreign correspondent, and half of that time in Asia, particularly China. That has given him the privilege of a ringside seat for some of history’s most fascinating moments, and the chance to meet some of the world’s most pivotal players.
Richburg’s first foreign assignment was Manila, beginning in 1986 during the heady days after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship. Richburg’s five-year stint in Southeast Asia took me regularly to Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and most frequently to Vietnam, then largely closed to outsiders. Cambodia was also a regular stop, even with the Khmer Rouge insurgency raging on the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh. Richburg’s second tour was in Africa, which produced a book, Out of America; A Black Man Confronts Africa (Basic Books, 1997) that won critical acclaim. When he landed in Nairobi in 1991, there was a rush of expectation in the air. The Cold War was over, African socialism was in retreat, and some of the continent’s most obdurate dictators had been toppled. Yet with the overthrow of Africa’s old order came chaos in many places. Richburg spent much of my time, until the end of 1994, covering the famine and civil war in Somalia, and the Rwanda genocide. His Africa reporting won several awards, including a George Polk Award for international reporting, and he was a Pulitzer finalist.
Richburg returned to Asia in 1995, this time based in Hong Kong and traveling regularly to Mainland China. Richburg’s first visit to China had been in 1985, when the streets were a sea of bicycles, most people wore blue Mao suits or green army uniforms, and Westerners were few. In the mid-‘90s, following Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening, Richburg returned to find a booming China, its coastal cities filled with new skyscrapers and restaurants, and Guangdong factories becoming the world’s export engine. China was transforming itself. In 2000 Richburg transferred to Paris, to be in charge of covering Western Europe. But within a few days of landing, suitcases still unpacked, he was shuttling between the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, covering the Palestinian intifada. The next year, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Richburg was making his way into Afghanistan to meet up with the troops of the Northern Alliance – a tortuous journey via jeep, and finally on horseback, traversing the Hindu Kush mountains during a November blizzard -- arriving in Kabul the day the Taliban fled.
From Paris, Richburg also went to Iraq in 2003, driving in from Kuwait behind a convoy of advancing American troops, and spent several weeks wandering around the largely Shiite areas of Southern Iraq.
Richburg returned to the U.S. in 2005 as the Foreign Editor of The Post, directing foreign coverage and a staff of 20 correspondents, and later, as Bureau Chief in New York City. From New York, he covered the fall of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, the 2008 financial crisis with the collapse of Bear Stearns, the Bernard Madoff scandal, and he helped cover the 2008 presidential campaign, including traveling with the Obama campaign.
But Asia still beckoned, and at the end of 2009, Richburg was once again in China, ostensibly to help cover President Obama’s first trip to Beijing. Richburg would wind up staying for three years, through the Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress at the end of 2012 that would usher in a new leadership lineup.
With Xi Jinping’s elevation to the leadership of Communist Party – the first transition in the era of the Internet and the free speech platform offered by the microblogging sites called “weibo” -- the voices calling for political and economic reform have grown louder and more diverse. And once again, Richburg has been accorded the privilege of a ringside seat to view China during this transition.
Richburg holds a BA in political science from the University of Michigan, and an MSc in international relations/comparative government from the London School of Economics.