Key Points:

When future historians look back on the 21st century, China's transformation will almost certainly be one of the most significant global events.

For Kiwi journalist Charlotte Glennie, it is a privilege to be able to witness history in the making. It's just a shame that it is Australian taxpayers who are paying for that privilege, she notes wryly.

Although her face has not featured on the back of any buses for a while now, many television viewers will still recall Glennie as one of the most talented journalists TVNZ has ever hired.

The former political reporter became its first - and possibly last - correspondent in Asia, after persuading it to open a bureau in Hong Kong. Although her coverage of the Boxing Day tsunami won her a supreme Qantas Media Award and a Special Service Medal, the bureau was axed last year as part of budget cuts.

Instead of coming home, Glennie stayed on in Asia, scoring a job as the Australia Network's correspondent in Beijing.

Funded by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Australia Network has offices in 16 countries and can be seen in at least 26 others - but not New Zealand.

Back in Auckland this week to speak at a seminar organised by the Asia NZ Foundation, Glennie conceded that it was sometimes difficult as a foreigner to keep abreast of developments in China.

Although she is slowly learning Mandarin, she is still dependent on a local producer to keep up with the local news. And while foreign media do not face the same strict controls as local government-owned media, the internet is still heavily censored, as are the local feeds of CNN and BBC.

"We operate on the basis that all our offices, cellphones, and possibly home phones, are bugged. We also have to assume that our email is randomly screened and read."

However, the internet is having a slow but powerful effect on censorship, she believes - particularly bloggers, who can often get away with anonymous postings that can be read by thousands of people before they are deleted.

At least two major international stories - the Chongqing "nail house" (the couple who refused to move out of their house to make room for a shopping mall), and a brick kiln that was found to be employing more than 1000 children and disabled people - were originally brought to light by bloggers.

While being female has not hampered her news gathering, she concedes that China is in many ways still a sexist society. The one-child policy means female infanticide is still rife and the country is now facing the fact that it will have 37 million more men than women by 2020.

That said, just before she flew out to Auckland, Glennie completed an item on one of the world's last-remaining matrilineal societies: the Nakhi tribe, who inhabit the foothills of the Himalayas in northwestern Yunnan.

Among the privileges of being female in the tribe are taking as many lovers as you wish and being allowed to bear children without marrying.

It's not easy to cover such fascinating issues. The logistical challenges of just getting around such a vast country are enormous and the cliche of "Chinese whispers" can be all too real when more than one translator is required.

"It gives a whole new meaning to 'lost in translation', working in China," she says.

Asked at the seminar by National MP Pansy Wong what she thought of coverage of Asian issues by mainstream media in New Zealand, Glennie admitted she did not think either what was happening overseas or what was happening locally was being adequately covered.

"I think it is quite selective, quite stereotyped and I think that is quite dangerous, so I do hope in time that changes."

Glennie has no idea when - or if - she will return to New Zealand. But at the same seminar was another former TVNZ star who has recently returned from Asia with an even more impressive CV.

Trish Carter was head of news when she was made redundant by the State-owned broadcaster in 2003, shortly after Bill Ralston took the reins. After a stint at Maori Television, she was snapped up by the Middle East-based network al-Jazeera, to set up an Asian bureau for their English-language division.

Carter said she was warned by Australian headhunters that she was about to kill her career by taking the job.

"By the time I left New Zealand I was wondering what the hell I had done. Within 24 hours I was sitting in Doha ... I was sitting in a villa that was ... completely barking mad, with secret corridors, red velvet curtains and chandeliers in every every room. We happened to be sitting in a basement room that had an enormous fish tank that would go well in The Sopranos. It had no fish in it, but in our case, there were feral cats beating up on one another. We were sitting there talking about editorial policy, and what we thought of celebrity adoptions, and the language of news ... I'd never met these people before and all of a sudden, you're going hammer and tongs because everyone has got a different view of what they think is correct, and what their line in the sand is."

She knew she had made the right decision. But at the time, she admits, she didn't realise just quite how much hard work lay ahead.

As well as setting up from scratch a new base for al-Jazeera in Kuala Lumpur, Carter interviewed more than 1200 people for 180 positions throughout Asia, and also had to set up new offices in Beijing, Jakarta, Manila and Sydney.

"I think in the end we had 18-20 different ethnicities, and lots of different languages. It became quite a task to meld the newsroom. You'd think it would be straightforward, but actually it's not."

She often worked up to 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week. But to her slight surprise, it all came together in the end.

A journalistic highlight was persuading veteran CNN anchor Veronica Pedrona - who had defected to al-Jazeera in 2005 - to clinch an exclusive report from inside Myanmar, with which the military dictatorship co-operated.

Carter, who has returned to New Zealand for family reasons, admits that behind the scenes al-Jazeera is as rife with gossip and craziness as any broadcaster - even TVNZ. "But editorially, it can't be faulted," she said. "One of the things about al-Jazeera that I found particularly liberating is it's not a ratings-driven organisation. It just doesn't matter. I'm not there to serve up fodder for advertisers."

Its growing worldwide fan base is testament to that. When she left three months ago, it had received 12,000 applications from journalists wanting jobs at the network.

Any more TVNZ staffers keen for a change might have left it just a little too late.