Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

5 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Being a Freelance Journalist in China

with 16 comments

Since I’ve been blogging sometimes readers will take the time to email me with some questions. Here are the five most common ones I receive, and my answers to them:

1. How do you get a visa as a freelancer in China?

This is usually the most pressing question. And my guess is that this is the biggest hurdle for those thinking of coming to China to do journalism. The official J-visa (full visa status and accreditation as a professional journalist allowed to do journalism in China) is difficult to get. It’s not easy to get even with the full backing of a major news organization. Suffice to say that unless you are employed or sponsored by one of these large media companies, it will be nigh on impossible to secure a J-visa.

Many of the freelance journalists I know in China have work or business visas because they have other full-time jobs – working for a local magazine for example – or they arrived after already securing employment with an English school or Chinese media organization.

Some arrive purely on tourist visas and do journalism. This isn’t as risky as it sounds, as long as you don’t draw attention to yourself, but it creates problems financial and psychological.

My advice is to gain employment by other means and try to secure a work or business visa. I have a two-year business visa with stays of 180 days; meaning I have to leave the country every six months.

I got this because the Chinese TV company for whom I work full time wrote me an invitation to help them “do business” and other documents, and then I went to Hong Kong to apply for the business visa.

I was lucky to get stays of 180 days however, and it was probably due to my being “overseas Chinese”, as the government has been encouraging the diaspora.

It is a gamble however – most people get stays of 90 days, which is what I had previously, but I have heard some get 30 days, meaning they would have to leave Chinese borders and come back every month for the duration of their visa: an untenable position to be in.

In summary: get a visa for China that is either business, working or student, and take all/any necessary means to secure those visas, and then do freelance once you’re comfortably inside the country. Or come to China on a tourist/student visa, try to get a job once you’re here, and then try to switch to a different visa with help from your employer.

2. Is it possible to survive purely on freelance?

A difficult question to answer. If you made £500 a month, that’d be not much fun but you’d survive (in Beijing anyway; smaller cities are much cheaper). £800 would be a lot more comfortable. Accommodation is around £250 to £300 (although you can find digs a lot cheaper: I stayed in a hovel for seven months that cost £120 per month). And £300 for monthly living expenses should see you through. Having extra helps a lot, as does having savings. In China, paying for accommodation means you’ll often have to pay a month’s deposit as well as the next three months in advance.

Having a source of local income with a stream of local currency is better. There are those who freelance on the side while working for a local media company. Beijing has a glut of English-language magazines: TimeOut Beijing, That’s Beijing, The World of Chinese, The Beijinger, to name a few. Many of them have internships and all are amenable to freelance pitches (the going rate is 1 Chinese yuan a word).

It is possible to survive just freelancing but it is quite hard. Most successful freelancers are seasoned journalists with names that are known among editors; names big enough to be relied upon. If you are thinking of coming to China to start from scratch, then I’d advise you find a niche reliable enough to score regular commissions, or else seriously hustle before, during and after you arrive. Or just freelance on the side.

3. Do you need to be able to speak Chinese?

It definitely helps. And more than that, having even a little Chinese will make your stay in China massively better. I get help from English-speaking Chinese assistants. One of them is a friend who has previous news experience. I have competent spoken Mandarin which helps – competency can be acquired after three to six months intense study. But equally I know China correspondents who would be hobbled if they didn’t have their Chinese news assistants. Getting a good one (who you should pay and credit) came naturally for me, as I work for a Chinese TV company, but it’s something to consider.

4. Any tips for approaching/pitching X?

My advice: basically stalk them a little. Look up their Twitter and LinkedIn. Go to their profile page at whatever organization they work for. Look at the kind of articles they publish. What’s their specialty? But, more than that, what kind of subjects do they especially like? There might be a pattern.

An introductory email should (always in the briefest terms) mention who you are, where you’ve published before, where you’re based (or moving to), and, ideally, should come with a few story pitches, or even studded with little pitch-lets (one-sentence story ideas). It’s always a good idea to have ideas.

5. Do you have contacts for X?

Usually after introductory emails, I may get someone asking for contacts. I oblige. Fellow freelancers and all. But I do also feel it shouldn’t be too hard to get the email addresses of editors. I use Google, Twitter and LinkedIn. I will ask directly on Twitter, or I will connect via LinkedIn. Many institutions, like The Guardian or CNN, have standardized email addresses. For example, The Guardian’s is

This means you only need the first and last names of the editor you want. If you don’t know, then more research is required.

Once, out of the blue, someone emailed me saying she’d really like me to introduce her to New York Times reporters (she assumed that I knew some personally). It was a little presumptuous. Look, all I’m saying is be nice and tactful. And it really does help to hone skills if you yourself can find contact details. Being a journalist is a lot like being a detective; the ability to be able to find information and people.

16 Responses

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  1. Great post Lu Hai, came at the right time for me.
    As for what you wrote about freelancing on a tourist visa- Is it possible to really avoid drawing attention when the goal is to eventually have your story published? Or were you refering to reporting about sensitive issues?


    November 16, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    • Hi Tam, thanks for reading! It is possible to avoid attention. They won’t really pay attention to what you publish.

      Unless of course you are reporting or making enquiries into especially sensitive topics. Then you’d be advised to be careful regardless of what visa you’re on.

      Lu-Hai Liang

      November 17, 2014 at 8:30 am

      • You also mentioned an option of pitching to English-language publications in China. Wouldn’t that be a different story, in the sense that in this case you’re pitching to a publication inside China? (in terms of taxes, bank account etc..). Wouldn’t it be a more problematic than freelancing to publications outside of China?


        November 19, 2014 at 10:04 am

  2. @Tam. Pitching to English-language publications in China should not pose any great problems. Many expats and students set up bank accounts in China and it is easy to do so. Freelancing for said publications should be pretty fuss free. On publication, they’ll ask for a bank account number and then transfer payment to your Chinese bank account. Having that income source of local currency is very handy of course. Tax shouldn’t come into it.

    Due to the transient nature of freelance work and payment, it would also make it less likely you’d get stung by the occasional raids Chinese police do on offices to make sure the foreigners they employ have the required documents, visas etc. These raids are quite rare, and should not be cause for concern.

    Lu-Hai Liang

    November 20, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    • Ok, but still, in this case you’re earning ןncome not as a hired employee (where the company takes care of all the bureaucracy for you) but as a freelancer. So, if your account is in China and the publication you’re working with is in China, wouldn’t it necessarily mean that you’re doing business in China and therefore, as a freelancer, that involves some kind of accounting at the time of payment (invoices etc.).
      What i’m asking is wouldnt that require some kind of a permit? As opposed to pitching to a publication outside of China, and having your account outside of China when getting paid for such work.


      November 21, 2014 at 9:31 am

      • No I’ve never had to do accounting or show permits. I cannot say that you’ll never have such trouble because that would be presuming for everyone who has freelanced for local pubs. If you’re really worried then the solution is to focus only on freelancing for foreign publications. I hope that allays your fears 🙂

        Lu-Hai Liang

        November 21, 2014 at 9:09 pm

  3. Sorry for the barrage of questions:-) Regarding accommodation, did you rent that hovel right away, or did you for instance stay in a hostel for a while? Considering you had to leave the country every few months, back then, wasn’t it hard to commit to renting a place?


    November 26, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    • So I am guessing you are considering coming here to freelance? Are you on Twitter, have a blog etc? – would be great to know more about ya, ’cause I’m pretty open here.

      Anyway, to answer your question, I actually stayed with a friend for a few weeks before I found that hovel. But before that, in 2012, my first time in Beijing, I stayed in a hostel. But I tried to get out of it asap. Basically renting is much cheaper than staying in a hostel. Even if you get a room share (bunkbeds, basic facilities etc), a hostel in Beijing will still set you back about 20 pounds a night. And that’s if you can get one of those beds. Booking is best. The big thing with renting is the shelling out for three months in advance, plus one month’s deposit. Yes it’s a big initial outlay, but it’s cheaper in the long run. Yes I had to leave every few months, but renting is cheaper, so that was neither here nor there really.

      Lu-Hai Liang

      November 28, 2014 at 5:35 pm

  4. No blog, facebook etc. I’m a dinosaur in terms of the social media world; but I do like reading your blog, and yes, you’re quite open and sincere (about your hardships as well as your successes) and that’s what makes your blog great. there’s no bullshit or pretending (as your post from today happens to demonstrate). I’m not sure yet about freelancing in China, but I am majoring in East Asian studies, so that is an option for me, as China is a big part of my studies and interests.


    November 30, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    • Thank you! Do keep in touch if you make good on that option. And don’t hesitate to ask any more questions. Or email.

      Lu-Hai Liang

      November 30, 2014 at 3:38 pm

  5. Thnak you too! And I will. Enjoy that vacation:-)


    November 30, 2014 at 6:59 pm

  6. How many stories are you writing and pitching per month and of those how many are getting published?

    I am currently in Thailand teaching English but I want to make journalism my career. Thanks for all the insight; it’s going to help me tremendously.


    August 4, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    • Hi there. Thanks for reading. I am very happy to answer your question, but I would prefer to answer via email (my email address can be found on the ‘About’ page). Then I can give you details and whatever advice you may want in more detail.

      Lu-Hai Liang

      August 6, 2015 at 3:57 pm

  7. Hi Luhai
    I just read your post on Richelle’s website and went straight to your website. You are the guy I need to talk to. Can I ask you out for a cup of coffee or green tea after CNY?
    If you’re not cool meeting strangers like this, let me introduce myself, I’m a friend of Richelle’s, Danish female YouTuber, currently enrolled in a university in Beijing studying journalism. I’m already working hard on my career options after graduation (also working part time now already). I want to know more about freelancing in Beijing and have been talking to a few different peeps but they are working with photography and video editing.
    Anyways, add me on WeChat 2302704360 if you want to meet up 🙂 cheers


    January 25, 2017 at 9:24 am

  8. Hello Mr Liang great writes and tips. Iv got a theory to run by you however is there any chance I can reach you through “WhatsApp” or other potential platforms?


    September 24, 2020 at 10:28 pm

    • Hello Ad, feel free to email me. The address is in the ‘About’ section.

      Lu-Hai Liang

      September 27, 2020 at 5:06 pm

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