Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for December 2013

From freelance to foreign correspondent – one person’s success story

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“I sold or gave away most of my stuff and headed east, pretty much on a whim”.

Those are the words of Kate Hodal, The Guardian’s south-east Asia correspondent. The story of how she got there is an inspiring antidote to these gloomy times. She also has some fantastic advice about multimedia journalism, especially video, for which she says there is tremendous demand. I had the fortune to interview Kate, via email, while I was based in China.

Here is the interview:

5 Budget-y Gift Ideas for Journalists (Xmas Edition)

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1. Google Nexus 5, £300

This phone is powerful, versatile, robust and great value. If you’re like me and unable, or unwilling, to drop a wad of hard-earned freelance earnings on premium phones like the iPhone 5S or Samsung Galaxy S4, then the Nexus 5 should appeal.

It has a large, high-res screen, a rugged form factor, and the latest Android OS. It’s also fast and incredibly smooth to use (I tried out a friend’s). The only negative is the camera which is not as good as the iPhone’s (which is still easily the class leader among phone cameras). But that phone is also £249 more expensive, and the screen of the iPhone is too small for the amount of reading I do.

2. Parker ballpoint pen, £4-£8

A nice pen. Although journalists tend to make do with biros, or whatever is available at hand, there’s something to be said about writing with a nice pen. The heavier weight, like you’re actually holding a tool fashioned for the craft of writing, the balance as it glides across the page. It does contribute to a better writing experience. But of course buying a decent pen for yourself feels somewhat self-regarding and vain. So it makes a perfect gift!

3. Leather satchel, £150+

Ok, so £150 plus for a bag might not seem very budget right? Well, a good bag can last you a lifetime. If it’s leather it’ll age and gain that look of having been everywhere (which might well be the case). It has to be leather. The material wears harder and has the benefit of at least some weather protection. I like the hard-bitten, man-of-the-world writer look, for which a good leather bag is the ideal accompaniment.

4. Canon EOS 600D (with 18-55mm lens), £400

This is the cheapest camera that also shoots high-quality video. For sure there are cheaper video cameras available but they will not compare to the Canon in terms of overall picture quality. It has a mic jack (essential to plug in an external mic) and although there is no video autofocus I wouldn’t recommend that feature on most cameras if you’re shooting interviews. The GoPro line of cameras is a popular alternative choice, but for sheer versatility the Canon is a good deal. For upgraders check out the Panasonic Lumic DMC-GH3.

5. Accurist watch, £35+

Robust, reliable and not too expensive – what a travelling watch should be. Something you won’t be afraid to scratch or dink when you’re out in the field, crawling along the rocks of a conflict zone, but also stylish enough for when you suit up to meet the commander general. Accurist is a British brand and I like their strong, simple designs. They feel well made despite their lower cost. They are quartz watches housed in watertight metal cases, so they should be pretty indestructible.

So I got a job with a Chinese TV company

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It turned out easier than I thought. Let me tell you exactly how it happened. In August I connected to a HR person of a TV company, over LinkedIn. I dashed off a quick message inquiring if they had any opportunities. She replied that they in fact did, that they were developing new programmes and hiring for reporters.

I sent off a CV to her – at this time I was in England, the company in Beijing – so she replied that when I returned we should meet.

Skip forward to October, and I arrived at their offices keen of face desperate of spirit (for I really needed some regular income) for an interview with this Chinese TV company in Beijing.

And that was that. It is interesting working for a Chinese broadcaster. They have programmes in English so language is not a big problem. Bureaucracy, endless meetings and a sense of inertia are, but these are not Chinese problems I’d hazard but endemic to TV across the world.

The Chinese way of thinking about how to best present China to foreigners however is unique. There’s a lot of talk and much consultation with the ‘foreign experts’ (really simply foreigners) over how foreigners think and how they perceive this or that.

I can hardly imagine a BBC meeting going like that. It’s quite alien to me – this intertwining of nationalism and entertainment.

But anyways, it’s a job. I get on with it – I write scripts and help with their programme development, specifically on pilots for a Beijing news show. My pay is fairly generous and I really needed the regular income. Having a day job is also healthy I think – endless freelancing, which mainly consists of me sitting alone in cafes browsing the internet can get lonely and it’s tiring always living inside your own head.

I will continue freelancing on the side, and will negotiate a part-time work schedule early in the new year. I’ve told them already. Getting some more TV experience always helps of course, and working in Chinese media always generates great experiences and insights.

Working in the media in China is not very difficult. Magazines, newspapers, websites, radio and TV – all have positions available. Just don’t expect to be earning big bucks. It helps, as always, if you have an IN – know the right people, do a bit of hustling and have experience bouncing around various local media.

Nyima Pratten became managing editor, at the age of 25, at a popular magazine in Shanghai after six months of smart decisions. Look out for a future guest post from her about how she did it.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 16, 2013 at 6:35 am

Review: Apologies To My Censor: The High & Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China

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It’s a rare thing indeed to read a book and find yourself identifying so readily with its content, so easily comparing its narrative to your own direct experiences, placing yourself as a direct heir to the protagonist, and so very greedily lapping up the chapters as if you’ve already lived through its pages.

But that’s what reading Apologies To My Censor was like. It is an autobiographical account by Canadian journalist Mitch Moxley of his time as a journalist in Beijing. The first half focuses on his move to Bejing, when he takes up a post as writer/editor at the China Daily, China’s oldest English-language newspaper. The second half documents his freelance adventures in China, after his China Daily contract expires.

The book covers a five year span, from 2007 to 2012. We follow Moxley from his disaffected, lonely, depressed state as a 20-something journalist not happy with his lot, in the freezing winter of Toronto, to Asia, where he briefly dabbles in freelance journalism covering Vietnam and Japan among other places, and to Beijing where he spends his time seeing out his Twenties.

304 pages. Published July, 2013. Author Mitch Moxley, 31, on random China adventures: “…experiences so beguiling and bizarre that they stay with you forever; rare moments when you are fully aware, fully present”.

This was a personally resonant book for me. Although I am somewhat younger than the author, I too decided to head to Beijing, in 2012 (while Mr. Moxley was still in the city), and found the place to be uniquely rewarding in terms of experiences and journalism.

Moxley’s time working at China Daily is richly intriguing. The daily newspaper is mainly staffed by Chinese journalists, and has to follow the murky waters of official state censorship, but Moxley, hired in a wave in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, gets a sweet deal that includes free accommodation and free plane tickets home.

In fact, his ‘work’ at the paper is minimal, he edits a few articles here and there and readily admits that most of his time is spent browsing websites, trying to work on his own freelance stories and Facebooking. He even has the balls to ask for a pay rise.

He is also keenly aware of the ‘journalism’ committed at the newspaper: “I would be like a media Batman: propagandist by day, journalist at night”. But he has enough sense not to take his role, and the moral fripperies, too seriously. His descriptions of his fellow foreign colleagues are also brazenly sharp – painting them as morally dubious cigarette and alcohol abusing veterans who’ve drifted around Asia from paper to paper.

Beijing is largely seen through the prism of partying and its run-up to the 2008 Olympics which is used as a major narrative device in the book. It was comforting to see Moxely’s inclusion of his romantic life in the book, a massive component of expat life especially in China, but sometimes neglected in other accounts. For a young man or woman, it is often an enjoyably indispensable aspect and there was much pathos in the author’s bittersweet descriptions of his dalliances with women and one “Krussian” (A Korean-Russian) who he falls into an intense relationship.

The accounts of trying to make it big, of trying to make your name as a writer and journalist were equally appreciated. When Moxley says “I wanted big stories” – he hits on the ego-driven and intense ambition of many a young gun writer, and those in Beijing nowadays. Although comparisons of noughties Beijing to 1920s Paris might be somewhat wide of the mark, it is true that Beijing does have in possession an unusual amount of unusually skilled journalists, which was noted by New Yorker China correspondent Evan Osnos.

He also has an ambition which I, at 24, share – namely to live abroad and to write long-form magazine articles and books. Two chapters in particular stand out in the book. They document self-taken freelance adventures, after jobs and opportunities have expired, and rest upon a risk, the purest gamble for a foreign freelance: to go somewhere without commission, to report, photograph and find a story that could, might eventually find a home.

Going to Mongolia and to southern China, his experiences working with other journalists and bringing a photographer contain instructive lessons in how to locate and package stories which you could sell to “first-tier” publications. But the book also acutely warns – a couple of his stories, although proud of them, fail to sell to the big name publications which they were obviously designed for.

But one cannot help a critical feeling after reading one too many times about how the author’s Chinese sucks and how he is failing to come up with freelance ideas, even when he spends his daily working life doing not very much work at all – you cannot help feeling that perhaps Moxley is simply a bit lazy.

He spends five years in Beijing, but only in the final months of his stay does he finally decide to properly learn Chinese. He yearns for journalistic success, and yet falls into the easy trap of partying and drinking and adventuring, but not finding equal enjoyment in the chase for pitchable ideas.

And having found myself living on 5 kuai (50 pence) sweet potatoes for dinner because I’ve been in debt, trying to save and not having parents willing to fund my life overseas, it is quite difficult to find much sympathy for Mr. Moxley who is older than I but has parents who are willing to bail him out when he is thousands of dollars in debt, after frittering them away on alcohol, travels and an indulgent lifestyle.

And yet, one cannot point out these failings too harshly, they go with the territory of trying to succeed, or more romantically, trying to fail. And if reading this book taught me one thing it is that pursuing a strongly held personal ambition is worth the hardship, the bitterness and the crushing loneliness, because the adventure of that act, the nobility of the pursuit is worth more, in the end, than the conventional arc of another, more prosaic life.

This book; brisk, hugely enjoyable, and a very minor achievement, is testament to that fact.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 8, 2013 at 1:03 pm

View from China – Britain’s Diminished Glory in The East

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In the UK we still tend to have a sense of superiority. Over Europeans. Over Americans. Etc.

After all, we had an Empire. And America used to be merely our colony. But living abroad you sometimes have exchanges which challenge this arrogant, outdated and clingy thought.

There are many Europeans now living and working in Beijing. Germans and Italians seem to be quite numerous, some of the latter prompted to move by stagnant economic conditions back home. It was while I was talking to a German cameraman friend of mine, who worked for Germany’s national broadcaster, that I realized that actually the Germans are the Masters of Europe. He commented how Germany had a much greater population than the UK, and how the broadcaster had bigger funds than the BBC (I could not verify this claim).

There was nothing I could say back to this. After all, Germany’s economy is by far the largest in Europe; stable and prosperous. And he knew it.

This sense of patriotism, of ‘my-country-is-better-than-yours’, and notions of power are of course juvenile. And yet they no doubt have currency in our national psyche and sense of national identity and self-esteem.

In China, this is doubly amplified. People here tend to be very patriotic and can tend toward nationalism. This is not surprising when you consider how patriotism is instilled through education at very early ages in school. They sing the national anthem, learn stories about self-sacrifice and generally listen to media which always conflate personal pride and your country’s pride.

Loving your country and loving your government are two entirely separate things, but sometimes in China I often feel the separation is not so clearly defined. In the UK, the cynical types that we are, we are able to reflexively criticize and mock our leaders and politicians.

On China’s social media there lurk thousands of patriotic comments, discussing China’s power and place in the world. And they don’t think very highly of the UK – if in fact they think of Britain at all.

David Cameron recently led a trade delegation (the biggest ever, numbering 131 people) to China. It received widespread media attention back in the UK. But in China, aside from some dutiful reporting about the visit by state-owned media, the event largely passed by. In fact the Thai riots was more talked about and more prominently reported.

Some choice comments from Weibo (China’s Twitter):

@jiyiran2012: “The Sino-Britain relations are similar to that between china and Australia: it’s all about money and money only”.

@侠客点徐: “Go back to Britain! We don’t welcome anyone who support japan in the air defense matters”.

@你被写在我的歌里-nadal:”now we can see how Britain has been suffering from the economic recession”.

[Translations courtesy of Lotus Yuen]

A lot of Chinese commentators consider Cameron’s visit and his compliments about China as a sign showing how China is growing more and more important on the international stage. There is a very noticeable air of superiority. Some viewed Cameron as ‘begging’ for money and that Britain viewed China as more important to it, than the other way round.

British brands are also not very well known. If pushed they can perhaps name Jaguar or Burberry. Many cannot even name who Britain’s Prime Minister is.

Perhaps it is time to accept that truly the UK is – if not quite a ‘bit-part’ player on the global stage – then at least a diminished cruiserweight but one capable of respect, dignity and influence. It is how the UK can adapt and use it to our advantage that will be the test of Britain’s power.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 5, 2013 at 8:52 am

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On David Cameron’s Visit to China

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David Cameron touched down in Beijing today, bringing with him Britain’s largest ever overseas trade and ministerial delegation. The 131-strong team will no doubt go all out in trying to achieve Cameron’s stated aim of making Britain China’s primary advocate in the EU.

Coming ahead of October’s visit by Boris Johnson and George Osborne, it heralds a major effort by the government to attract Chinese investment and cooperation with Britain. Since Cameron met with the Dalai Lama last year, Beijing has been noticeably cold with UK officials, a ploy often used to signal Beijing’s anger.

The EU is China’s largest trade partner, ahead of the US, and Cameron will be expected to talk up a free trade agreement between the EU and China in talks with China’s president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang.

Britain punches above its weight in China. Recognition of British brands and expertise is strong, and British companies are increasingly looking to expand their reach into China’s giant market. China’s GDP continues to grow at a phenomenal rate, growing around 40% between 2010 and 2012, basically adding the economic equivalent of India to its economy in two years.

Speaking to Stephen Phillips, Chief Executive of the China Britain Business Council (who is on the delegation) earlier this year, I learnt a lot about how British businesses are plugging into the developing economy of China. In all the big news and shocking numbers about China’s stupendous growth, perhaps it is forgotten that in some respects China is still a developing country.

China’s rural population numbers 656 million (the percentage of urban residents surpassed countryside dwellers in 2011). And daily expenditure levels for most of the population is still very low (I can quite easily eat out in China’s capital for all meals for less than five pounds every day).

Britain’s engineering and infrastructure businesses are looking to China’s emerging second-tier and third-tier cities to capitalize on infrastructure development. Healthcare and support for the growing elderly population is another opportunity. While on the higher end, public relations, fashion and product design are knowledge industries experiencing rapid evolution. Education remains one of Britain’s top exports.

Knowledge-led, high value industries are the UK’s forte and this is reflected in the list of Cameron’s delegates where engineering, education and finance are especially well represented. Brands such as Ted Baker and Marks and Spencer have sought to make their presence felt, although high street stalwarts like Topshop have been conspicuous by their absence considering H&M and Zara did so well in entrenching themselves so quickly.

Businesses and the individuals focused on developing trade concentrate on the vast opportunities China presents. But on the political side, commentators have voiced their disappointment over a seeming lack of moral authority, which once perhaps Britain may have had. Jonathan Mirsky, writing in the New York Review of Books, after Johnson and Osborne’s visit, said: “How gratifying it must have been to Chinese officials when Cameron recently said, “I have no plans to see the Dalai Lama”, a statement Osborne took care to repeat”.

Cameron and his advisors know just how important it is to develop Britain’s interests with the world’s second largest economy. If it feels like Britain is the junior partner, that is because it is, at least in this situation – the dismay expressed at the failure to highlight human rights and other issues is the liberal edge to the same sadness that pervades Britain’s sense of lost imperial glory. But it is right that people strive for their leaders to uphold principles of freedom and justice.

The United Kingdom’s moral authority on the global stage is being compromised for the sake of capitalism, a truth keenly understood by the ‘communist’ state of China.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 2, 2013 at 7:36 am