Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for June 2014

How a story about Chinese journalism students led to a chance at the New York Times

with one comment

Recently, a piece I wrote, originally destined for CNN, was published on the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China blog section. It took me a long time to find a home for the article after it was cancelled by CNN but its eventual publication, which was unpaid, has led to opportunities from, among others, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The article is about Chinese journalism students, graduates and China’s journalism industry. It was fascinating to report on and some of the answers I found surprised and befuddled me. Here are some of the highlights:

“I think the Marxist view on journalism is right,” says Wang Zihao, a 22-year-old journalism major at Beijing’s Communications University of China. “Sometimes what the [Western] journalists do is just outrageous. They should have more professional ethics.”

According to 2013 government figures, there are over 250,000 journalists with press cards, which are mandatory for professional journalists in China.

“Sometimes one person has to do things that are supposed to be done by three people. So this is not discrimination against women, it’s just that men are better at working under pressure,” says Mr. Wang.

Issues of censorship and political agendas are, perhaps contrary to foreigners’ beliefs, much discussed on campuses and online. But the students’ opinions may not be what foreigners expect

For the whole article please use this link:


It was while I was reading an article about how the Chinese government was putting extra pressure on its journalists in The Washington Post that I came up with the idea for this story. A section in that Post article mentioned how student journalists in China and university faculties were also facing pressure, and I thought: “hmmmm, I wonder what’s it like to be a Chinese journalism student?

So I pitched this idea to an editor at CNN’s website, who I had made contact with using Twitter.

Twitter’s a fantastic resource for journalists, and I have gotten email addresses, sources and contacts aplenty from it; usually I just ask – “hey do you take freelance, if so, what’s your email?” – or something along those lines.

The editor liked the idea, and off I went. I asked a Chinese friend to help me with the reporting and because she herself had gone through a journalism degree in China.

Cue lots of research and reporting.

I wrote up the article, during which the commissioning editor at CNN had gone on maternity leave.

My article got passed on to a couple of other editors, one of whom asked for the story to be re-reported. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that – and they eventually spiked the story. It was my first ever story cancellation but I guess it happens.

Anyway, I tried to sell the story on to other outlets all of whom liked the story but felt it was perhaps a bit too niche a topic. It was picked up eventually as you all now know, although for free. I did hope that it would be a paid for, but the value of it being published anyway exceeded my expectations.

It was re-tweeted and favourited by dozens of journalists, writers and editors, partly I guess because the story is about journalism. I followed up on these and introduced myself. Cue opportunities to pitch editors who’ve seen my work – after reading the article – and who I now know enough to feel that when I pitch them that we’re not complete strangers (every little helps).

I will think and search for new pitches, because bylines in such storied publications as The Washington Post or The New York Times would be awesome.

Movin’ up: from poor freelancer to slightly rich writer

with 3 comments

I’ve written about being a poverty-stricken writer before. Tales of squalor and survival. On having to eat street-cooked sweet potatoes for a week because I was waiting to be paid. On readjusting attitudes toward money, or rather the accumulation of it, beliefs which I still hold. But now the going should be easier.

I recently moved into a new apartment. It’s in a nice area of Beijing where rich couples stroll around in the evenings. It’s like a little community, a more cosmopolitan part of a city that’s usually gritty – Beijing is perhaps one of the more squalid capital cities of the world.

My old room cost me RMB 1200 a month, or £120. It was a tiny little place, where I could almost touch the walls, just big enough for a single bed, a desk, a sink and a wardrobe. My girlfriend commented that it was the smallest and horriblest place she’d ever seen someone living in (thanks!) and that the bathroom was like the setting for the movie SAW.

The new place is RMB 2400 a month, or £240. I will go to a Beijing IKEA in the near future to furnish the place. I’ve taken on a part-time tutoring job for an eight-year-old Chinese girl. The monthly fee from this pays the rent. I get RMB 10,000 a month (£1000) from my full-time job at the TV company. My freelance journalism pays around £300-500 monthly, depending on my own productivity.

In total then, my monthly salary is around £1600, or 16,000 Chinese RenMinBi. In the UK, £1600 to live on per month is not too bad although this would depend on where you lived. In London I can imagine, after rent, bills, transport and food, it would not stretch very far.

But in China, even in Beijing, this is quite a comfortable salary, what a 35-year-old manager might earn at a medium-sized media company so I’ve been told.

It has taken me seven months to reach this stage. For about seven months now, my UK bank account has been in the red, where I’ve made fervent use of my bank overdraft to finance rent deposits and visa runs to Hong Kong. It is just now back in the black.

The Chinese bank account, after paying for three months rent in advance and a deposit, still has left a sizable residue that will easily tide me over until my next paycheck. Which I will use for a 20-day vacation in Thailand. Life is alright, for now…

What should a freelance journalist do in the summer?

with 3 comments

My productivity lately has nosedived. Temperatures in Beijing meanwhile peaked  – last week it hit 41 Celsius. Summer in general is a difficult time for me. I find it harder to concentrate on work.

It feels perverse to be indoors hunched over staring at a computer screen when people are doing summery things. Hormones also go through the roof (or is that just me?) and the mind drifts toward an addled state fixated on hedonism, idleness and pleasures.

I’ve got a couple of commissioned pieces on the go. My day job (at the TV company) has been more demanding of late, requiring more energy but really that’s an excuse. Another disruption is that I’ve been homeless for about three weeks now. I’ve been staying (and overstaying) on friends’ couches around Beijing, after me and other tenants were kicked out of our rooms by the landlord. Landlords have far too much power.

I finally found a new place I was happy with but can’t move in until June 11th, so tonight I will be sleeping on a couch at my workplace. I’m writing this post now at my office’s desk at 11pm Beijing time.

So what should a freelancer do during this season? I’d like to know what other freelancers do, so please do leave a comment. I guess many cannot really afford to take much time off if their livelihood depend on the income, and they don’t live in a cheaper location such as China. Summer is often a dry period for news and contracted freelancers for newspapers often take time off.

I guess summer is a time for reading, relaxing, doing what humans like to do, traveling, swimming, eating, drinking, lounging, sexing, snorkeling in sapphire waters on a James Bond beach, taking time off and making memories that when the cold and drab colours of winter come back will offer some reserve of sun.

Soon I’ll be reunited with my half Japanese, half Ukrainian Canadian girlfriend in Thailand for 10 days. It’s going to be awesome. In the meantime I will work on two 5000-word essays on the freelancing life in Beijing and my Chinese political heritage for two editors that might one day be powerful champions. I will try to write but I guess I will mostly read. And that is just as important.


The Great Wall Music Festival, May, 2013. It was fun.


Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 4, 2014 at 2:21 pm