Fairfax will soon announce a replacement for celebrated China correspondent John Garnaut, who will return to Australia in June after almost six years in Beijing.

Garnaut, the son of economist and former China ambassador Ross Garnaut, will take up a senior role at The Age in January after time off to finish a book on China’s Communist Party princelingsGarnaut, who has a young family, originally planned to stay for another year but decided to come back because of Beijing’s notorious air pollution.

In a March email to staff, Fairfax editorial director Garry Linnell said: “It’s been a remarkable tour of duty where he has broken new ground as a correspondent in a very difficult journalistic environment. From his reportage through to his commentary and analysis, John’s work has charted China’s rise as an economic and military power through to its internal struggles with ideology, corruption and its rapidly changing social conditions.”

The Middle Kingdom is regarded as an especially challenging foreign posting because of language barriers and the difficulties of reporting in an authoritarian state — including restrictions on internet access.

Garnaut won a Walkley Award for scoop of the year in 2009 for revealing Rio Tinto boss Stern Hu and three associates had been detained by Chinese authorities, and his reporting on Communist Party leader Bo Xilai has been praised in The New York Review of Books and UK’s Sunday Times.

Crikey understands a strong field of Fairfax staffers have applied to replace Garnaut — including company veterans and several journos with Chinese language skills. Business reporter Philip Wen is seen as a frontrunner for the post, despite being younger than most of the other candidates. Wen, who has strong Chinese language skills, impressed observers during a stint in China last year — especially his work on self-immolating Tibetan monks.

Appointments for Fairfax’s prized foreign correspondent postings are now made solely on merit following Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood’s silo-smashing crusade. Until recently, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age took turn sending reporters to their shared overseas bureaus. “The days of the foreign posting being a late-career reward seem to be over — thank God,” said one Fairfax insider.